Beyond Beauty: The Invisible Influences of Cognitive Biases in Orchid Breeding 40+ examples of mental shortcuts applied to orchids

In Breeding, Flasking & Invitro Propagation
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Orchid breeding is a complex interplay of art, science, and a dash of patience. However, a fascinating aspect frequently overlooked is the role cognitive biases play in our selection of favored plants or the decisions orchid breeders make when making a new cross. Drawing from my career in software design—where biases can impact the user experience a designer creates—I find myself intrigued by the potential influence these psychological shortcuts have in the domain of the orchid hobby. This exploration isn’t about passing judgment on the choices made; rather, it’s an avenue to deepen my curiosity (and subsequently share those findings with you). I can be a bit oppositionally defiant and tend to ask, “well…why?” if something doesn’t track for me—like when someone critiques this or that cross claiming it’s inferior from a judging perspective. Related to that, I often ponder: how do our preferences, community influencers, emerging trends, (and even the impact of AOS awards in orchid breeding) mirror biases such as conformity bias, confirmation bias, or the Dunning-Kruger effect?

In the upcoming exploration, we’ll delve into the nuanced -hypothetical- ways in which our cognitive biases might influence the quest for the ideal orchid. This exploration encourages us to not only admire the visual beauty of our flowers but also to think deeply about the complex factors that influence the decisions we make about them. Now let’s look at the crossroads of cognitive science and orchid breeding…


Examples of Cognitive Bias Applied to Orchid Breeding

  1. Affinity Bias — The tendency to favor people, items, or ideas that are familiar or like oneself. Example: The hybridizer might preferentially collaborate with or seek advice from other breeders who share similar tastes in orchid traits or breeding philosophies, potentially limiting exposure to diverse ideas that could lead to a more innovative or successful outcome.
  2. Availability Heuristic — A mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to mind. Example: The hybridizer might overestimate the value or appeal of orchid traits that are frequently discussed in their social or professional circles, such as specific colors or shapes, because those traits are more readily recalled from conversations or awards ceremonies.
  3. Bandwagon Effect — The tendency to do or believe things because many other people do or believe the same. Example: Observing a trend where certain orchid traits are gaining popularity, the hybridizer might decide to follow the crowd and breed similar orchids, even if those traits don’t align with their original vision of the perfect flower.
  4. Beauty Bias — The inclination to favor what is aesthetically pleasing or conforms to cultural standards of beauty. Example: The hybridizer may unconsciously favor orchids that fit a conventional standard of beauty within the orchid community or among the general public, potentially overlooking unique or unconventional orchids that could have significant appeal or value.
  5. Confirmation Bias — The tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses. Example: When researching techniques or traits to enhance their orchids, the hybridizer might only seek out and give weight to information that supports their belief in what the “perfect” orchid should look like, ignoring evidence that suggests alternative approaches could be more successful.
  6. Conformity Bias — The tendency to act similarly to others in a group, regardless of one’s own beliefs or preferences. Example: The orchid hybridizer may decide to focus on breeding goals that are exclusively targeted toward winning awards, ignoring other potentially innovative or unique hybrids, simply because it’s considered the popular choice within the breeding community.
  7. Curse of Knowledge — The difficulty for individuals with extensive knowledge to view situations from the perspective of lesser-informed people. Example: Breeders with years of orchid care experience might struggle to understand why novices struggle with specific orchid types or care requirements, forgetting what it was like to have different growing conditions or limited knowledge.
  8. Dunning-Kruger Effect — A cognitive bias in which people with limited knowledge or competence in a domain overestimate their own ability. Example: The hybridizer, especially if relatively inexperienced, might overestimate their understanding of orchid breeding and the complexity of achieving the perfect flower, leading to overly optimistic expectations about their ability to influence specific outcomes.
  9. Framing Effect — Influencing one’s decision by the way information is presented, rather than just the information itself. Example: The way information about orchid traits is presented can significantly influence the hybridizer’s decisions. Like, if a trait is framed positively as increasing the chance of winning awards, the hybridizer might prioritize it over other traits that are equally important but framed less attractively. An obvious case could be selecting for bright colours and/or flat flowers at the expense of flower longevity or flower count.
  10. Halo Effect — The bias where the perception of one positive characteristic leads to the assumption of other positive traits. Example: If a particular orchid variety has won prestigious awards, the hybridizer might assume that all aspects of that variety are superior, such as ease of cultivation, market demand, or aesthetic appeal, without critically assessing its actual merits or drawbacks. Or similarly, if one plant of a cross won an award, the breeder might expect the siblings will have the same potential to win awards or produce award-worthy progeny.
  11. Information Bias — The tendency to seek information even when it cannot affect action. Example: In the quest for the perfect hybrid, breeders might seek out excessive amounts of information, such as genetic data or cultivation techniques, even when it doesn’t materially impact their breeding strategy.
  12. Mere Exposure Effect or Familiarity Principle — The tendency to develop a preference for things merely because they are familiar. Example: Breeders might develop a preference for certain orchid varieties simply because they are more familiar with them, rather than based on their intrinsic qualities or potential for hybridization.
  13. Negativity Bias — The tendency to pay more attention to negative information or experiences than positive ones. Example: The hybridizer might become overly fixated on a single negative piece of feedback about their orchid, allowing it to overshadow numerous positive comments and potentially derailing their focus away from their original breeding goals.
  14. Non-adaptive Choice Switching — The tendency to switch choices in a non-optimal manner after a bad outcome. Example: After a breeding failure, a breeder might irrationally avoid using a previously selected parent orchid for future crosses, even if the failure was due to unrelated factors.
  15. Plant Blindness — The inability to see or notice the plants in one’s own environment. Example: This could manifest as a breeder overlooking the ecological or environmental impact of their breeding practices, focusing solely on aesthetic or commercial aspects—such as selecting for albino or coerulea flower colours at the expense of growth rate and resilience.
  16. Present Bias — The tendency to overvalue immediate rewards at the expense of long-term intentions. Example: Breeders may prioritize immediate results over long-term success, choosing to focus on quick-blooming hybrids rather than investing in slow-developing, potentially superior varieties.
  17. Prevention Bias — The preference for preventive measures over treatments or cures. Example: A breeder might invest more in preventing diseases through complex care routines and regular applications of systemic pesticides or fungicides, rather than investing in breeding strategies that select for more resilient plants.
  18. Probability Matching — The tendency to match the probability of making a choice with the probability of its payoff. Example: When selecting orchids for hybridization, a breeder might match the probability of choosing certain parents with perceived rewards, rather than optimizing for the best genetic combinations.
  19. Self-Serving Bias — The common habit of a person taking credit for positive events or outcomes but blaming outside factors for negatives. Example: If their orchid wins an award, the hybridizer might attribute this success entirely to their skill and unique vision, while any failures or criticisms might be blamed on external factors, such as poor judging or unfavorable growing conditions.
  20. Sunk Cost Fallacy — The tendency to continue an endeavor once an investment in money, effort, or time has been made, even if the current costs outweigh the benefits. Example: After investing significant time, effort, and resources into breeding a specific orchid prototype, the hybridizer may continue down this path even if it becomes clear that pursuing an alternative direction might be more fruitful, simply because they don’t want their initial investment to be wasted.


Additional Examples of Cognitive Bias Applied to Orchid Breeding

  1. Action Bias — The inclination to act rather than refrain from action, often without clear evidence that action is beneficial. Example: An orchid breeder might feel compelled to constantly change their breeding strategies or care routines in response to minor issues or even in the absence of problems, thinking that taking action is always better than waiting and observing.
  2. Additive Bias — The preference for solving problems by adding new elements instead of removing existing ones. Example: When trying to improve an orchid’s traits, a breeder might always look to add new variables into the mix (more nutrients, different light sources) rather than considering simplification (reducing variables that may not be beneficial) as a viable strategy for enhancement.
  3. Anchoring Bias — The tendency to rely heavily on the first piece of information received. Example: If the first orchid variety they experimented with received positive feedback, the hybridizer might anchor to that variety as a benchmark for perfection, potentially overlooking the possibility of achieving better results with different varieties or techniques.
  4. Attribute Substitution — Occurs when a complex judgment is replaced by a simpler one. Example: Faced with the complex decision of which orchid hybrids to focus on, a breeder might substitute the difficult task of predicting market preferences with a simpler heuristic, such as choosing based on their personal preference or the ease of cultivation.
  5. Attribution Bias — The tendency to attribute successes and failures to incorrect factors. Example: If their orchid fails to win an award or gain recognition, the hybridizer might attribute this failure to external factors, such as biased judging or poor timing, rather than considering the possibility that the orchid might not meet the community’s current standards or preferences.
  6. Declinism — The belief that the past was better and the future will be worse. Example: Some breeders may romanticize past orchid varieties and believe that modern hybrids can’t compare to the “classics,” overlooking the improvements and diversity achieved through contemporary breeding efforts.
  7. End-of-history Illusion — The belief that one will change less in the future than they have in the past. Example: Breeders might believe they’ve reached the pinnacle of their hybridizing skills or that their current preferences for certain orchid traits will remain unchanged, underestimating future learning and shifts in taste.
  8. Exaggerated Expectation — The tendency to predict more extreme outcomes than those that actually happen. Example: Breeders may have unrealistic expectations about the outcomes of their hybridization efforts, expecting extreme changes or improvements from single breeding decisions.
  9. Form Function Attribution Bias — The error of attributing functionality based on form, often seen in human-robot interaction. Example: When selecting orchids for hybridization, breeders may overly rely on visual attributes (form), assuming they directly correlate with other desirable traits (function), like robustness or bloom longevity.
  10. Fundamental Pain Bias — The belief that one’s own pain is reported accurately while others’ pain is exaggerated. Example: Breeders might underestimate the challenges or frustrations newcomers face in orchid breeding, believing their own struggles were unique or more intense.
  11. Hedonic Recall Bias — The tendency for people satisfied with their wage to overestimate how much they earn and vice versa. Example: A breeder’s satisfaction with the outcome of a hybrid might distort their memory of how much effort or resource was actually involved, influencing future breeding decisions.
  12. Hindsight Bias — The tendency to see past events as having been predictable. Example: After a particular hybrid becomes successful, breeders might believe that its success was obvious from the start, overlooking the uncertainties and risks present at the time of decision-making.
  13. Impact Bias — The overestimation of the future impact of an event on one’s emotions. Example: Breeders might overestimate the impact that achieving a perfect hybrid will have on their satisfaction or reputation, not accounting for the quick adaptation back to their baseline level of happiness.
  14. Interoceptive Bias or Hungry Judge Effect — The influence of one’s physical state on their judgments. Example: A breeder’s judgments or decisions about which orchids to cross or cull might be influenced by their physical state (e.g., hunger, fatigue), affecting their objectivity.
  15. Money Illusion — The tendency to focus on the face value of money rather than its purchasing power. Example: Breeders might focus on the nominal cost or profit of their orchids without considering the real value or purchasing power, leading to skewed perceptions of financial success.
  16. Moral Credential Effect — The phenomenon where a person’s track record of good behavior makes them more likely to make unethical decisions later. Example: After successfully breeding a highly desirable orchid variety, a breeder might feel justified in taking ethical shortcuts in other areas, believing their prior success affords them some leeway.
  17. Omission Bias — The tendency to judge harmful actions as worse, or less moral, than equally harmful inactions. Example: A breeder might judge the action of genetically modifying orchids as worse or less ethical than not acting to prevent diseases through traditional breeding, even if the outcomes are equally harmful.
  18. Optimism Bias — The tendency to be overly optimistic about the likelihood of positive outcomes. Example: Breeders may be overly optimistic about the success rate of their hybridization efforts, underestimating the likelihood of failure or overestimating the chances of producing award-winning varieties.
  19. Ostrich Effect — The tendency to ignore negative information by burying one’s head in the sand, like an ostrich. Example: Some breeders might ignore clear signs that their breeding strategy isn’t working or that a particular variety is losing popularity, preferring not to acknowledge negative information.
  20. Outcome Bias — The tendency to judge a decision by its outcome rather than by the quality of the decision at the time it was made. Example: Evaluating the decision to cross specific orchid varieties based on the outcome (successful or not) rather than the quality of the decision-making process at the time.
  21. Pessimism Bias — The tendency to overestimate the likelihood of negative outcomes. Example: Breeders, particularly those who have faced repeated failures, might overestimate the likelihood of negative outcomes in future breeding attempts, even when conditions are favorable.
  22. Pro-innovation Bias — The tendency to have an excessive optimism toward new innovations, overlooking their limitations. Example: Overenthusiasm for new breeding techniques or technologies without fully considering their limitations, costs, or the need for traditional methods.
  23. Projection Bias — The tendency to project current preferences into the future as if they will remain unchanged. Example: Believing that future preferences for orchid traits will remain the same as current preferences, leading to breeding decisions that may not align with future market demands or personal tastes.
  24. Proportionality Bias — The inclination to assume that big events must have big causes. Example: Assuming that a significant breakthrough in orchid hybridization must have a grand, complex cause, overlooking the possibility of simple, incremental improvements leading to success.


As we conclude this exploration into how cognitive biases shape our appreciation of orchids, take a moment to reflect on the diversity of beauty in your own collection. From award-winning specimens to those with personal significance, your perception of beauty is unique to you, influenced by the subtle yet powerful lenses of your biases. Next time you admire or plan for your orchids, think about what truly draws you to them—is it their accolades, rarity, or a personal connection? Recognizing the role of biases not only enriches our enjoyment but also broadens our appreciation for the complex allure of orchids. Embracing this perspective invites us to celebrate the myriad ways we perceive beauty, deepening our connection with these fascinating plants.