What is Survivorship Bias?
Think of Survivorship Bias as a filter in your brain that shows you the success stories while hiding the failures. Imagine you’re playing a video game and only the winners’ characters are visible to you; all the others, the ones who lost, are invisible. This bias makes you think the game is easy because you only see the winners. In the real world, it’s like when we hear about the one company that becomes huge and successful but don’t see the countless startups that fail and disappear. Because of Survivorship Bias, we end up with a skewed view of reality where success seems common and failure rare, though the opposite is true. So, two simple definitions to remember:
- Survivorship Bias is a mental shortcut where our attention is focused on the people or things that “survived” a process, forgetting about those that did not. It’s like taking a picture of a basketball team where only the MVP is visible because the others didn’t get an award.
- It’s a flaw in thinking that happens when we only consider the success stories and ignore all the hidden attempts and errors that didn’t make the cut. It’s like telling the story of a treasure hunter who found gold, not mentioning the hundreds that went looking and found nothing.
How Does Survivorship Bias Affect Us?
Survivorship Bias impacts our decisions and beliefs in many ways. Here’s a list of examples with explanations and a scenario where the bias can guide us wrong:
- Business Success: Hearing about giants like Apple and Google might make us believe that launching a tech company is a surefire path to riches. This is Survivorship Bias because for every Apple, there are numerous unknown companies that didn’t survive in the competitive tech world.
- Education Paths: The tales of college dropouts like Steve Jobs and Ellen DeGeneres encourage some people to abandon their education, underestimating the value of formal learning. Survivorship Bias is at play here because it overlooks the many who drop out and fail to find similar success.
- Investing: When everyone’s talking about successful investments in Bitcoin or Tesla, it can feel like it’s easy to multiply your money in the stock market. However, this is Survivorship Bias since it doesn’t address the numerous investments that resulted in a loss of money.
- War Stories: Books and movies often tell the stories of soldiers who lived through wars, glorifying their survival but leaving out the majority who may have had entirely different, tragic experiences. This paints a selective picture of war because of Survivorship Bias.
- Art and Music Industry: For each widely-known artist like Beyoncé or Picasso, there are myriad unknown talents fighting for a spot in the spotlight. They either gave up or never got the chance, and Survivorship Bias keeps their stories out of view, falsely suggesting that success hinges solely on talent.
Dealing with Survivorship Bias
Acknowledging and counteracting Survivorship Bias helps us make more informed decisions. Here are some tips and strategies:
- Look for the whole story: To avoid bias, make an effort to discover what happened to those who didn’t succeed. It’s like watching the entire race to see where everyone ended up, not just the first to cross the finish line.
- Ask for the other side: Whenever you hear about a victory, probe for information on those who didn’t make it. This broadens your understanding and can offer valuable learning experiences.
- Remember the odds: Keep in mind that statistically, failures overshadow successes, which often stay out of sight.
- Learn from failures: Instead of just celebrating victories, explore and learn from the mistakes and defeats because they can be rich in lessons.
- Seek different perspectives: Gain insights from a diverse group of people, including those who faced setbacks, to obtain a fuller, more balanced view.
Related Biases and Concepts
Survivorship Bias isn’t the only cognitive shortcut that can skew our judgment. Here are some related biases and ideas:
- Confirmation Bias: Let’s say you believe that eating chocolate every day is healthy. If you only look for studies that prove this and ignore any study that says otherwise, that’s confirmation bias.
- Selection Bias: Imagine you’re trying to figure out if teenagers like video games, so you survey people at a gaming convention. Since you’re only asking gamers, your conclusion will be biased. That’s selection bias.
- Optimism Bias: If you always think things like, “I’m sure I’ll win the lottery someday!” even though most people never do, then you’re experiencing optimism bias.
- Availability Heuristic: Have you ever decided that plane travel is dangerous right after hearing about a rare plane crash? That’s because that incident is fresh in your mind, even though plane travel is generally very safe. This is the availability heuristic at work.
Why is it Important?
Understanding Survivorship Bias is crucial because it directly impacts the decisions we make. For example, if you decide to invest your savings based on a few success stories without considering the dangers, you might lose everything. Or consider if you chose a career simply because you heard about a few people who made it big in that field without learning about the countless others who didn’t, you might end up unsatisfied and out of work.
By recognizing Survivorship Bias, the average person can better acknowledge the risks and realities in life choices, whether in careers, education, or personal finances. Realizing that success stories are the exception, rather than the rule, encourages a more level-headed approach to decision-making and sets more realistic expectations.
Debates and Controversies
Some believe Survivorship Bias can be positive — it motivates us and shows us that triumph is possible. Success stories can spark inspiration and action, pushing us to pursue our dreams with confidence. However, others argue that it’s dangerous because it promotes a false sense of security and sets many up for disappointment when reality doesn’t align with the rosy picture painted by the bias.
Additionally, experts question if we can ever completely eliminate Survivorship Bias or if it’s an inherent part of our thinking patterns. While some think we can mitigate its effects through education and awareness, others understand it as a natural aspect of human cognition that can only be managed, not eradicated.
Survivorship Bias is a subtle but influential flaw in our thinking that highlights success while hiding failure. It pervades various facets of our lives and can distort our understanding of realities in business, education, investing, and beyond. By learning about Survivorship Bias and how to counter it — seeking out the full story, considering the overlooked failures, and learning from varied experiences — we gear ourselves toward making more balanced and informed decisions. Recognizing and managing this bias is key to a clearer perception of the world and prevents us from falling into the trap of overestimating our chances of success in a world where failures are more common than triumphs.