Survivorship bias is a logical flaw we unknowingly entertain, coloring our perception of reality.
From seemingly harmless social media posts nostalgically recalling an era with fewer safety precautions to life-changing war strategy decisions, this bias worms its way into our reasoning.
It’s like navigating life through a distorted mirror that only reflects survivors, obscuring the casualties and the very cause of their demise.
Facebook and the Illusion of Invulnerability
Scrolling through Facebook, you’re bound to come across posts that glorify dangerous activities or habits of the past, portraying them as badges of honor.
“We didn’t have seatbelts or safety features in my day, and we’re still here,” proclaims one post, while another boasts, “My granny smoked every day, and she made it to 95.” These posts dismiss the dangers associated with such practices, promoting an illusion of invulnerability.
What they omit, however, is the inconvenient truth – the stories of the casualties.
You don’t see posts that say, “I used to drive drunk and died on day one,” simply because the victim isn’t around to share their story.
Survivorship bias deceives us into believing that dangerous activities are less hazardous than they are, merely because we only hear from the survivors.
Unmasking Survivor Bias: Lessons from the Battlefield
The harsh realities of wars provide fertile ground for analyzing survivorship bias. Let’s examine two popular examples — the Brodie helmet from World War I (WWI) and bullet-ridden planes from World War II (WWII) — to underscore the point.
During WWI, military hospitals reported a surge in head injuries, leading some to believe that the recently introduced Brodie helmets were the problem. In reality, the helmets were saving lives. Before their introduction, head wounds would often result in immediate death on the battlefield.
The increase in injured soldiers wasn’t indicative of the helmet’s failure, but rather its success in transforming fatal injuries into survivable ones. The data was skewed because it only accounted for survivors who reached the hospitals.
In WWII, the Americans wanted to reduce their air squadron’s casualty rates. Observing that returning planes were frequently riddled with bullets in the fuselage, outer wings, and tail, they decided to reinforce these areas. Again, they fell into the trap of survivorship bias.
The planes that made it back had survived despite being shot in these areas, suggesting that damage there was less likely to be catastrophic.
Abraham Wald, a Hungarian-Jewish statistician, recognized this flawed reasoning. If bullet holes were randomly distributed over planes, the areas without holes on the returning aircraft were likely those that had proven fatal when hit. Wald recommended reinforcing those areas, effectively accounting for survivorship bias.
The Pervasive Power of Survivorship Bias
Survivorship bias can insidiously influence our understanding of the world. By presenting an incomplete picture, it tempts us into flawed reasoning. From interpreting data to forming perceptions, it underscores the importance of considering those who didn’t make it to the spotlight.
The examples of the helmet and the planes illustrate that failing to account for this bias can lead to incorrect assumptions and flawed decision-making.
If the military had acted without considering survivorship bias, they would have reinforced less crucial parts of the plane or discontinued the use of the Brodie helmet.
On a societal level, posts on social media that glorify hazardous habits, neglecting to mention the significant risks involved, contribute to a skewed perception of reality. When you consider only the survivors, dangerous behaviors seem less risky, and reckless habits are romanticized.
Navigating the Mirage
Awareness of survivorship bias is crucial in navigating a world filled with skewed narratives. As we tread the path of life, we must remember to consider both the survivors and those who didn’t survive.
When interpreting data, making decisions, or simply scrolling through social media, remember to ask: what stories aren’t being told?
Which voices aren’t being heard? The reality we perceive is often a mirage, distorted by survivorship bias.
Piercing through this illusion enables a more accurate understanding of the world, fostering more informed decisions and a realistic worldview.