The term looks big and heavy and it indeed is. It explains a very important and yet neglected aspect of our lives.
Survivorship Bias: The logical error of concentrating on the people or things that made it past some selection process and overlooking those that did not, typically because of their lack of visibility. People systematically overestimate their chances of success. Not everyone is a survivor.
Wait..wait..before you misjudge the content that’s being served here, this is not a blog where I intend to demean positivity or take you down to a path of low self confidence. I’d never do so. I am a big time harbinger of positivity and growth myself. This blog is more about how well aware and accepting we should be about the outcomes in our lives.
Anyway, carrying on…
Right since our childhoods, we keep on hearing success stories, stories about how a person became such a successful individual, how despite of belonging to such a poor background, someone made it really big, and so on. Motivated by all those stories, we start thinking, will I make it big? Obviously, I will..look at that person, if he/she has done it, so will I.
Notice the last line:
“If that person has done it, so will I.”
There is a very minute difference between this line and the line below.
“If that person can do it, so can I.”
The difference is that the first person is under the spell of survivorship bias while the second person is just optimistic and positive about his approach towards his/her goal.
Yes you can also make it big. The probability of that lies a fraction above zero — simple.
There is no one more ignorant that the one who wants to believe the existence of only one side of the coin.
It is a very fair probability that you will end up in the graveyard of failed individuals, like many others. But, we are never conditioned to think in this way, no one is interested in talking about failures. Everyone wants to succeed, because in our daily lives, triumph is more visible than failure. The unsuccessful don’t write books or give lectures on their failures. They do, but only when they become part of the successful lot.
When we only pay attention to those who survive, we fail to account for the base rates and end up misunderstanding how selection processes actually work. The base rate is the probability of a given result we can expect from a sample, expressed as a percentage. If you play roulette, for example, you can be expected to win one out of 38 games, or 2.63%, which is the base rate. The problem arises when we mistake the winners for the rule and not the exception. The over the top success stories are anomalies at one end of a distribution curve. While there is much to learn from them, it would be a mistake to expect the same results from doing the same things.
Behind every popular author, you will find 100 other authors whose books would never sell. Behind them are another 100, who never found publishers. Behind them, yet another 100, whose unfinished manuscripts gathers dust in their drawers, and behind each one of them are another 100, who still dream that one day, they will write a book. But we only hear about the successful authors and fail to recognise the efforts of the other lot. No one is interested in digging around the graveyards of the unsuccessful.
To elude the survivorship bias, you have to do the digging yourself.
Survivorship bias especially becomes pernicious when you become a member of the “winning” team. Even if your success was just a fluke or it stemmed out of pure coincidence, you’ll discover similarities with other winner and be tempted to mark these as your “success factors”. However, if you visit the graveyard of failed individuals and companies, you will realize that its tenants possessed many of the same traits that, according to you, characterize your success.
So, most of the times people succeed, it is because of the right place and right time and not because they did something out of the box or made correct calculative decisions.
Don’t let survivorship bias engulf you and blind your aspirations, judgement and decisions. Guard against it by frequently visiting or at least acknowledging the graves of once promising projects, investments and careers.