Don't Fall Victim to Survivourship Bias

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I think I’m a rational person, but I’m not. Neither are you by the way. We’re all irrational. Something that Dan Ariely teaches us in his well renowned book Predictably Irrational.

Researchers and economists have for many years believed that as humans became more and more educated that they would make increasingly logical and well-considered decisions. But research over the past 50 years or more has uncovered that we all succumb to a wide range of mental errors that undermine our thinking. Sometimes we do indeed make logical decisions, but there are plenty of times we make emotional, irrational, and even confusing choices.

The list of names given to all the influencing biases upon rationality and decision-making is quite long. However, I thought in this post I’d introduce you to just one - Survivorship Bias.

Spend more than 15 minutes online or listening to TV and other media and you’ll find something that screams survivorship bias. How do you recognise it when you see it? Whenever you see articles with titles like “The 5 Things Successful People Do Everyday” or “How Richard Branson Built an Empire” or “Michael Jordan’s Mindset For Staying At the Top of His Game and How You Can Too.”  you’re seeing survivorship bias in action.

Survivorship bias refers to our tendency to focus on the winners in a particular area and try to learn from them while ignoring about the losers who are employing exactly the same strategy.

Think I’m wrong? Millions of women all around the globe diet and exercise so they can look and be paid like a supermodel and despite this, there’s only a handful that do! The bodybuilding scene has grown tremendously popular since Arnold Schwarzenegger bust onto the scene in the 70’s but yet again, only a handful of people truly taste bodybuilding success and fame. “I wanna be like Mike!” was the adulation that sounded to Michael Jordan’s appearances at the NBA yet, there's probably thousands of athletes who train in a very similar way to Jordan, but never made it to the NBA.

The problem is nobody hears about the thousands of people who never made it to the top. We only hear from the people who survive. We mistakenly overvalue the strategies, tactics, and advice of one survivor while ignoring the fact that the same strategies, tactics, and advice didn’t work for most others.

The business world is not immune to survivorship bias either. Seldom a month go by when Sir Richard Branson isn’t in the media as an example of how to do business, win, have courage etc. etc. Yet the likes of Richard Branson, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg all dropped out of school and became billionaires! Lesson here? Stop wasting time in school, start a business!

For every Branson, Gates, and Zuckerberg, there are thousands of bankrupt entrepreneurs or significantly debt laden people who quit school or Uni to chase their dream.

Survivorship bias isn’t that a strategy may not work for you, it’s saying that nobody can really say if the strategy works at all.

When the winners are remembered and the losers are forgotten, it becomes unclear if a particular strategy leads to success. Once we are aware of this particular bias it doesn’t always have to be the case. We can use it to our advantage.

During World War II, the statistician Abraham Wald took survivorship bias into consideration when determining how to fortify bombers from enemy anti-aircraft guns.

Previous research had focused upon logging damage done to planes returning from raids over Germany. From the data, the very same researchers recommended that additional armour should be included in areas detailed in the diagram below to prevent the damage that their research indicated.

Wald contested that the study only considered the aircraft that had survived their missions. The holes in the returning aircraft represented areas where a bomber could sustain damage and still remain functional. Wald proposed that aeroplanes be fitted with additional armour where the returning aircraft were undamaged, as it were those planes that failed to return from missions.

Aeroplane picture courtesy of By McGeddon - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Aeroplane picture courtesy of By McGeddon - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

So consider carefully that miracle diet, fabulous investment opportunity, advice from school dropouts and so on, because whilst something may have truly been successful for someone else, there's no guarantee it will bring success to others. Success rewards the discerning mind.