Survivorship Bias: The Mental Error that Makes You a Terrible Decision Maker!

Just like me, you must have come across motivational articles like these: ‘7 Habits of the most successful people’, ’12 books that are read by all world class CEOs’, ‘the single one trick that all billionaires share’, and, ‘7 proven-steps to living a healthy life’. These articles are everywhere on the internet and are rehearsed loudly by the media. Every day and every minute, the media and various motivational speakers are replaying and re-enforcing strategies, habits and techniques that the most admirable and successful personalities of our times exhibit. What you don’t get exposed to is the huge number of people who applied the same habits, read the same books, and followed the same steps and still ended up in trash, their ideas and dreams buried forever in the world of FAILURES! This is called Survivorship bias!

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According to Wikipedia, survivorship bias is 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. In other words, it is our tendency to concentrate on those who succeeded while forgetting millions many more who failed under similar circumstances. It is our tendency to concentrate on the 12 books that Mark Zuckerberg reads while forgetting millions who read the same books but didn’t make it in life. It our tendency to teach that, just like Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs, one can be successful without attending college while forgetting millions many more people who drop out of school and never succeed in life. It is this bias that is called survivorship bias; concentrating on survivors while forgetting those who didn’t!

A story is told of a statistician named Abraham Wald who, while applying his knowledge regarding this kind of bias, saved American bomber planes from being hit during World War II. During World War II, recites Walker Donohue, American bomber planes would return from war with a lot of bullet holes. Therefore, the army thought of creating armor to shield off bullets during the war. The question was, where or which plane parts needed this protection the most? Easy! They examined the ‘returning’ planes and noticed that most of them had many bullet holes on wings, the tail, and body! Good! Let us put our armor on these vulnerable areas, they concluded!

However, Abraham Wald, a statistician at Columbia University did the magic! Factoring in the survivorship bias, the gentleman insisted that the army would be doing a huge mistake providing protection for the above named ‘vulnerable areas’. His argument was that the data the army was relying on was only from those planes that had actually survived. So, his question went like, ‘those planes which haven’t come back, where have they been hit?’ It is important to note that planes that didn’t come back were even many more compared to those that made it back! Based on his analysis and new approach, it was found out that, actually, for every plane that got hit in the engine, it didn’t make it back! In other words, the engine was the most vulnerable part and not the body, wings or tail! Decision had been made based on the few that returned and whose damage was charted while forgetting the many that didn’t come back and whose damage could not be charted! Wald saved American planes!

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We make the same error and mistake every time we make decisions based on the few success stories we hear about. For example, for every successful DJ, there are hundreds many more who failed. For every successful entrepreneur, there are thousands many more who failed. For every successful writer or movie actor, there are millions many more who failed. And, mind you, the failed ones did the same steps or even did more work than the successful ones! Isn’t it James Clear who always warns, ‘the pursue of success is good as long as you always remember that the result isn’t in your control’? Well, there we go! Every time we DECIDE to do and or act based on the few success stories thrown into our faces, we are equally downplaying thousands many more who failed under similar circumstances. This is very risky and dangerous!

Lesson 1: When making decisions, in business, relationships, finances, and every other aspect of life, it is wise to always factor in the ‘failing side’, those who didn’t make it under similar circumstances. And, since the media and famous platforms don’t have time to dig into the burial grounds of their (the failures) efforts, we can always go an extra mile and listen to them. The successful ones tell us what to do to succeed, but the many unsuccessful ones can tell us what to actually avoid! This is very important.

Lesson II: We can always do what it takes, but the final word isn’t in our hands. For Christians, it means that God makes the final word. This is important to avoid surprises or deal with disappointments efficiently. There is no guarantee or fixed science to success; we are all gambling under the mighty hand of LUCK or CHANCE or GOD!

Lesson III: Context. Yes, context is very important. What worked for Mark Zuckerberg may not work for you or me. While he dropped out of college and still succeeded, you may not succeed if you drop out of school. Just because Bill Gates reads X number of books per year doesn’t mean you too should read the same number of books. Even if you did, the end result isn’t necessarily the same. So live your context, live your life.

Lesson IV: The media and ‘famous’ can be dangerous when it comes to influencing our decision-making for this SINGLE reason; they always have one side of the story! I have always argued that what makes it into media or becomes famously known is not always the true representation of our society’s best. There is so much greatness, wisdom and quality that the media doesn’t touch. This is because most of what is great can’t be counted. And the media or even the whole world knows nothing beyond numbers and money! So, be careful with the media and all things ‘famous’!

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What other lessons can we learn from survivorship bias? How can we apply it in our daily lives? Share your thoughts in the comment section below. I promise to respond to every thought of yours! Thank you

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Professionally, a nurse & public health officer. Founder & CEO @MIKLAH, SWAPafrica, Yapheh Salons, etc, Sacred Entrepreneur, Author & Speaker.