In the vast landscape of cognitive biases that cloud our judgment, there’s one particularly deceptive pitfall that often goes unnoticed: survivorship bias. This bias can skew our perceptions, lead us to make flawed decisions, and even shape entire narratives. Let’s dive deep into understanding survivorship bias, its implications, and some classic examples.
What is Survivorship Bias?
Survivorship bias refers to the logical error of concentrating on the people or things that “survived” a particular process, while inadvertently overlooking those that did not. This can lead to false conclusions because it fails to account for the entire sample set.
Implications of Survivorship Bias
Skewed Data and Analysis: By focusing only on success stories, we can miss out on valuable insights from failures. This can lead to incorrect conclusions and misguided strategies.
Overestimation of Success: Survivorship bias can make certain outcomes seem more probable than they actually are, leading to overconfidence.
Loss of Learning Opportunities: Failures often provide the best lessons. Ignoring them means missing out on opportunities to learn and grow.
Examples of Survivorship Bias in Action
The Airplane Bullet Holes: During World War II, military experts wanted to reinforce airplanes to reduce losses. They studied planes that returned from missions and marked where they had taken the most bullets. The initial thought was to reinforce these areas. However, a statistician named Abraham Wald pointed out that they were only looking at the survivors. The planes that didn’t return likely took bullets in different places. By only focusing on the surviving planes, they almost missed the areas that truly needed reinforcement.
The Successful Entrepreneur: When we hear stories of entrepreneurs who dropped out of college and went on to become billionaires, it’s tempting to think that dropping out is a recipe for success. However, for every successful dropout, there are countless others who regret their decision. Focusing only on the success stories can give a skewed perception of reality.
Music from the Past: Ever heard someone say, “Music was so much better in the ’70s!”? This is survivorship bias at play. We remember and still listen to the best hits from past decades, but forget the countless mediocre tracks. Over time, only the best songs “survive” in our collective memory, leading to the perception that an entire era was filled with great music.
Survivorship bias is a subtle yet powerful force that can distort our perceptions and decision-making processes. By being aware of its presence and actively seeking out the stories of both survivors and non-survivors, we can make more informed judgments and avoid the pitfalls of this deceptive cognitive bias.
In the words of the statistician Abraham Wald, “It’s not what you look at that matters, but what you see.” Let’s ensure we see the whole picture, not just the surviving pieces.