World War II plane research: The prototypical example of survivorship bias comes from statistician Abraham Wald at Columbia University, who conducted research on WWII bomber planes to recommend places for reinforcement.
His team reviewed the data from all returning bombers and identified the locations on the aircraft in which they underwent the most fire. Rather than recommend those locations as places for reinforcement, however, Wald recognized they were using a form of survivorship bias. Wald noted these locations were actually spots in which aircraft could sustain many bullet holes and still return, while the planes that sustained enemy fire in other locations were the ones that went down.
His team recommended reinforcements to locations less represented in the data of returned planes—as a result, they made more effective predictions and saved many lives.
What Is Survivorship Bias?
Survivorship Bias is a logical error that leads to false conclusions by concentrating on the people or things that made it past a particular selection process. And when we do this, we tend to overlook those that got ignored, typically because of their lack of visibility.
It happens a lot in our day-to-day lives and negatively impacts our decision-making.
A great example is copying what successful people have done and receiving advice from the so-called gurus and experts:
Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of college and became wildly successful. But for most college dropouts, it means unemployment and having more immediate student debt.
Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Neymar are getting paid highly as football players. But the truth is, most players never make it into a game in their lifetime.
Motivational gurus talk about following your passion and trusting your gut feelings — but there is no shortage of people who followed their passion and ended up seriously wrong.
When we’re listening to the success stories in any field, we get inspired by the companies, portfolios, and people who made it to the top. What we don’t hear and see are those who tried and failed because generally, people don’t talk about them.
How To Avoid Survivorship Bias
Understanding survivorship bias itself helps to prevent it from happening in the first place.
When you get clear with what it is, it becomes easier for you to see it again and again everywhere.
The next step is to seek the other part of the story that is missing.
Take ‘following your passion’ as a piece of success advice. We first look at successful people who have followed their passions — and indeed, they accomplished what they desired at the end of the day.
However, you need to ask one other question:
Did other people fail because of not following their passions?
If the answer is yes, then we can conclude that ‘following your passion’ is the key characteristic to accomplish success.
However, the truth is that there are a lot of people who followed their passions and failed.
This simple question forces us to look at both positive and negative evidence — and only make our assumption certain when there is no way to prove otherwise.
What Is He Banging On About
Why is this in a blog that’s supposed to be focused on writing.
Well, a lot of people look to successful authors for an understanding of the magic formula.
What do they do that makes them successful?
Just do that right?
Looking at successful authors doesn’t give you the big picture.
There are many unsuccessful authors that have followed the same formula as successful ones.
There are some ‘rules’ that apply to writing, but they are not the thing that makes writing successful.
Look beyond the rules and any perceived ‘formula.’
What makes successful authors successful are the stories they tell and the voice they use to tell them.
And even then, there is an element of luck, of circumstance way beyond an author’s control: flavour of the month and all that.
Write a good story that you care about: do it in your own voice, not a clone of someone else’s. If you’ve made it this far (TLDR right!?), thank you and keep writing!