Mental Shortcuts - Survivorship Bias

Survivorship Bias

Survivorship bias is a fascinating phenomenon that many of us may have encountered in our daily lives without even realizing it. Simply put, it means that we tend to focus only on the things that have survived a filtering process and ignore the ones that have failed. This can lead to errors in our decision-making, as we may overestimate our chances of success or underestimate the challenge ahead of us.

The classic example of survivorship bias comes from World War II, where Navy researchers were studying the damage done to aircraft by enemy fire. They recommended adding armor to the areas that had the most damage, but mathematician Abraham Wald pointed out that they were only looking at data from the planes that had survived their missions. The bombers that had been shot down were not included at all, and so the researchers had made an error. Wald proposed that they do the opposite and armor the areas where the surviving planes had not been hit, as these were the areas that were causing fatal damage to the other planes that had not survived.

Survivorship bias can also be seen in everyday life, such as when we move to a new town and see many successful restaurants. We may assume that we can do the same, but we are not considering all the restaurants that failed in the years prior. We also see survivorship bias in the entertainment industry, where we only see the successful actors and actresses, but not the thousands of failures that came before them.

It’s important to be aware of survivorship bias and not let it trick us into thinking that the challenge is easier than it seems. We should chase our dreams, but also be aware of the invisible failures that may be hiding behind the success stories. By taking a more realistic approach and looking at both the successes and failures, we can make better decisions and avoid falling prey to survivorship bias.

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