Jul 24, 2020
On today’s behavioral economics
foundations episode we are going to be talking about survivorship
bias. I decided on this episode when Kurt Nelson (cohost of
Behavioral Grooves with Tim Houlihan--last week’s guest) shared a
comic of the concept on LinkedIn. After some conversation with
Benjamin Granlund (the artist from the Lantern Group who created
the comic) I learned this is part of their new 100 Behaviors
project. They’re sharing (you guessed it!) 100 different
behaviors/BE concepts on the socials through these fun little
cartoons. One of the early ones is on survivorship bias, and I have
linked to their Instagram so you can follow along as
So, what is survivorship bias?
It may sound like it is only a life or death thing…and while that
is part of how it was discovered it is more than just about
surviving. And, like all the biases you hear me talk about on the
show, your brain is using this one all the time, and it can
absolutely impact the decisions you make in your
Survivorship bias impacts
entrepreneurs for sure, but it is also leading people astray in all
sorts of businesses. Understanding this concept and being on the
lookout for it can help you make better decisions on what to invest
in—money and time, make your calculations and predictions of your
work more accurate, and generally increase the likelihood that your
endeavors are more successful.
Let’s start with the story of
how this bias was discovered, which will require us to journey back
to the days of WWII...
- [03:19] Survivorship bias impacts entrepreneurs
for sure, but it is also leading people astray in all sorts of
- [03:49] Melina shares the story of how this
bias was discovered, which requires us to journey back to the days
of WWII. In a war, the slightest edge can be the difference between
success and failure.
- [05:52] The problem with reinforcing the spots
on the planes that have received the most bullets, is that it
doesn’t account for a very large and important part of the data set
(the planes that didn’t make it back). This conclusion is missing
- [06:46] In fact, those blank spots are where
you want to reinforce the planes. It will make them stronger in
those places so they can take some fire there and not go
- [07:39] One common example of survivorship bias
is when you seek advice on how to be successful.
- [09:11] 2 million of the students who start
college each year will drop out before graduating.
- [10:04] If you only look at the successful
people and ignore those who failed you aren’t getting the true
- [10:53] We just see the few who win and it
makes it seem like those stories are more common than they really
- [11:24] As we look back on our own lives, we
see choices that we think got us to where we are, but those on
their own are not the answer.
- [13:15] There are lots of other factors that
determine success. If you do exactly the same thing year after year
you will not always have the same end result.
- [13:51] Survivorship bias was making them only
look at what they did and assume that it is the winning formula no
matter what, but it just isn’t the whole picture.
- [15:10] Just because two things are seen at the
same time doesn’t mean that one caused the other to occur. This is
the difference between correlation and causation.
- [16:07] Just because two data sets appear to go
together doesn’t mean one actually caused the other to happen.
- [16:59] Even if there is causation it doesn’t
mean that it is the only thing that is causing that particular
outcome to occur.
- [18:12] For every 1 popular book out there, one
million unsuccessful books and their authors are the other side of
this survivorship bias phenomenon.
- [18:41] There isn’t a magic pill or silver
bullet to “win.” It takes trial and error and a lot of hard
- [19:28] Being ready to invest and do the hard
work (which includes looking at your goals and problems from all
angles and taking the tendency of survivorship bias into account)
will put you miles ahead of your competitors and make it more
likely that you will succeed too.
- [19:46] Some other areas where survivorship
bias can cause us problems is when we say things like, “I will win
because I have a better product or service than they
- [20:30] The lesson here is to look at all the
possible data points and not focus on one single
- [20:48] Another place where survivorship bias
comes into play is on customer satisfaction surveys and other
questions you are asking of your current customer base.
- [22:31] Across the board, if you aren’t
considering the full data set of people, your results (and
consequently the actions you take based on those results) will be
- [23:00] A good rule of thumb is to stop, take a
breath and ask, “What about everyone else?” or “Who have we not
thought of?” “Who else is there?”
- [25:29] Taking the time to slow down and
consider what might be missing, what the data could look like from
another angle and reframing your question to see how the results
and insights change, can make a huge difference.
- [25:44] Look at the survivors, winners and
success stories, but don’t forget about everyone else. Their
lessons can keep you grounded and help you to become your own
winning success story.
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