The Irony of Survivorship Bias

The Irony of Survivorship Bias

Survivorship Bias is a decision-making error when you try to follow in the footsteps of stories of those who survive instead of learning from the more numerous people who failed. Most people know this, but I believe there’s also an irony that’s associated with the idea’s general interpretation.

No time? Listen to it instead

Survivorship Bias is a decision-making error when you try to follow in the footsteps of stories of those who survive instead of learning from the more numerous people who failed. People often follow irrational decision-makers or take unreasonable calls instead of gathering more information. They believe in the over-the-top, omnipresent stories of the survivors and forget about the more numerous who failed.

Bo Burnham & Lottery Tickets

The comedian Bo Burnham once (very honestly) wrapped this into a simple conversation during an interview with Conan O’Brien. Here’s how it goes.

“I would say don’t take advice from people like me who have gotten very lucky,” Burnham said. “We’re very biased. You know, like Taylor Swift telling you to follow your dreams is like a lottery winner telling you, ‘Liquidize your assets, buy Powerball tickets, it works!'”

Christian Holub (EW)

Bo is correct in pointing that out. There is a massive element of luck involved, along with hard work.

For example, not every high school dropout who starts a company makes it big. Some stay in the lower trudges of business until they are tired, acquired or go bankrupt. Most don’t even get that startup, well, started.

A Story from WW2

Another excellent example of Survivorship Bias and spotting it is the case of the Abraham Wald, who was a mathematician during World War 2. While adding armour over the allied planes, he noted that the only places where no planes had bullet holes were the cockpit and engine.

At first, these seemed to be the natural places to skip the armour. However, Wald argued that the planes that were hit in those places never made it back. They never survived. Hence, it was most important for those places be armoured.

In that reasoning, Wald is not only taking into account the evidence of what survives. He’s also considering what fails. This helped Wald paint a much clearer picture and arrive at a better solution.

You must feel this is all common knowledge. Wald’s example is a cliched one when talking about Survivorship Bias.

That’s because I want to touch upon the irony of it.

The Irony of Survivorship Bias

In my opinion, there’s an irony involved in Survivorship Bias. Most people quote the bias to get out of a stage of action. Since most people fail, they argue, why bother?

However, if you never bother, you will never make it to the survivors. Your base probability or just the chance of you making it goes from very low to zero if you don’t try.

Therefore, it is truly in your best interest to try but to keep the bias in mind and make sure you gather as much information about the failures as you can.

A better bet is to know exactly why what you’re planning to do has failed: to not repeat the same mistakes and be wary of situations. That’s the correct usage of the Survivorship Bias.

The Nudge

Survivorship Bias is when we take the stories of the handful of survivors and forget to take into account all the people who failed at the same thing. Often, Survivorship Bias is used to get out of a state of action. It’s believed that since barely anyone makes it, there’s no point trying. However, the irony with this is that if you don’t try, your odds go to zero directly. Extremely low odds are still greater than zero. If you want to survive, you have to try at least. If you keep the bias in mind and think of all scenarios where something fails beforehand, you just might make it.

Original Featured Photo by Museums Victoria on Unsplash.

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