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July 4, 2019

Survivorship Bias Explained

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I wanted to take this opportunity to learn more about a term I came across recently, and extend that knowledge out to you. The term is survivorship bias, and it is a psychological “short cut” that can lead to major misunderstandings when out of place. In learning about it, we can ensure it doesn’t impact us negatively, but what is it?

Survivorship bias is a misplaced focus on the people or things that have made it to the next stage in a selection process. Basically, you only focus on part of the whole picture, seeing those who advanced as representative of the average, and neglecting the elements that got eliminated. It is a form of selection bias that can lead to us making the wrong conclusions because we have a skewed understanding of what is  normal.  

Within the context of personal development, survivorship bias can be really dangerous because it prompts you to compare yourself to others on an uneven playing field.  That perception may lead to us to question our capabilities, lose confidence, or a engage in general introspection that asks, “what am I even doing?”.  The reality is that we shouldn’t compare ourselves to others in the first place, but we do because we need that validation. Lets call it what it is, and not completely identify with that.

An example of survivorship bias in action is let’s say you are put through a competitive interview process, and you get to meet some of the other candidates also applying for the same position. They are impressive, and you don’t feel like you belong or meet the same qualifications. This happens because the only candidates you see are the ones who also advanced to the next stage, and you completely unaware to the fact that many people have already been eliminated. In advancing yourself, you were selected as better than the average candidate, but we don’t rationalize it that way because we only use what we see to draw our own conclusions.

So, if you’re in a case similar to this, I’d encourage you to give yourself credit for your success, understand that you belong, and know that any self-doubt comes from a psychological shortcut called the Survivorship Bias.

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