What is survivorship bias?
Let’s start with the basics and the origins of survivorship bias. It was Abraham Wald, the famous mathematician of the Second World War, who coined the term 🤔.
Indeed, the Royal Air Force had asked him to analyze the bullet holes on aircraft returning from combat (the survivors) to protect vulnerable areas. By reflex, we would tend to reinforce the places where there were impacts, but Wald thought instead about the planes that hadn’t returned. Indeed, if they didn’t come back, it meant that they had failed and that the bullets had hit places where the other planes had no holes. By this deduction, Wald therefore reinforced the parts of the plane where there were no bullet holes, to maximize the number of planes that returned from combat and therefore increase the number of survivors.
Abraham Wald reinforced the parts that weren’t hit ✈️
It’s all very well to talk about aircraft, but what does that really tell us about how you can make a success of your life? Well, survivorship bias teaches us that we shouldn’t draw conclusions based solely on the “survivors”, on what is visible. Otherwise, the consequences can be disastrous 😥...
>>> Read; Why I'm scared of failure
The norm: success stories
This cognitive distortion therefore has an impact on our perception of reality. When we focus only on the survivors, the successful ones, we get a partial view of reality. What about the rest? It’s forgotten and with it, all the people and stories that haven’t had the same success 😕.
Unfortunately, these are the silent majority, of which most of us are a part. It’s obviously a question of appeal, it’s more glamorous and interesting to constantly highlight those who have succeeded. By continually highlighting success stories, we make them the norm and believe that everything is easily achievable, whereas there are many other things to take into account.
A lot of young people want to become influencers nowadays, because it’s a job that’s talked about a lot, looks incredibly easy and seems to make a lot of money. It’s true, influencers are everywhere, we see loads of them on social media, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to achieve this status. We don’t see all the people who try hard, and we often forget those who are in the shadows and end up giving up.
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Why is this cognitive bias a problem?
Survivorship bias is delusional. It’s always those who are successful that are in the spotlight, and it feels like you’d only need to write one book to be the next J. K. Rowling or the next Stephen King 📚. Of course, the same goes with all fields, because as I said before, success stories are always praised and highlighted.
Yes, the survivors inspire us, they make us want and hope that we can do the same. The worst of it is undoubtedly the inspirational speeches they make, explaining that they’ve worked enormously hard, that they’ve invested a lot and that this is the reason for their success. Except that this is another bias, because one parameter is often forgotten: luck.
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There’s no such thing as equal opportunities
Yes, what leads someone to success is often the delicate parameter of luck. I’m not saying that there isn’t work done beforehand, but the right meeting in the right place at the right time is what tips us over the edge towards success.
Especially as we often forget that there’s no such thing as equal opportunities 🤷♀️. We’re led to believe that this is the case, but there are factors that often have an impact on our success, such as our social origin, our gender, our skin color, or even our religion. We don’t all have access to success in the same way, because society isn’t fair and is made up of injunctions and norms.
Let me tell you my example. I always believed that I could succeed in a particular field. But only very recently I realized that despite investing 12 years, I couldn’t succeed. Not least because I’m a fat woman and society is fat phobic. People, algorithms and the media are much less interested in people who are overweight, because it’s not the norm. Unless you use this difference to your advantage, you can’t succeed.
The pain of failure
The reason I’m talking about this today is that survivorship bias has had a huge impact on my life. For a long time, I suffered by comparing myself to others, to those who had succeeded, and above all, I didn’t understand why it didn’t work for me. It even led to developing symptoms of depression, because I’d put so much into it that I ended up making myself exhausted.
That’s the real problem with survivorship bias, it’s all the suffering it causes the silent majority. You feel pathetic because you’re failing, and it’s difficult to take a step back and look at things in a more positive light. Of course, it’s less depressing to take an interest in those who have succeeded rather than those who have failed, but if you don’t, you’re deluding yourself.
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t try, no, but we need to look at reality fairly and be aware of those who have failed. As such, we protect ourselves from disappointment and the feeling of dissatisfaction, or worse, the feeling that we’re failing in life...
Editor’s note: Success at all costs
Lauren explains perfectly how focusing solely on the success of a few can lead to failure. Indeed, it’s important to look at things in a relative and holistic way. Nor is the pursuit of success at all costs a goal, or at least the only goal, that we should be chasing. Whatever our lives, we all have something heroic and glorious within us. We need to be aware of this and look for a path to fulfillment that suits us, rather than trying to become someone else.
🤗 Understanding yourself, accepting yourself, being happy... It’s here and now!
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