Survivorship Bias Makes You Focus On Successes When You Should Remember Why Others Failed

The cognitive quirk called survivorship bias causes you to focus on what winners do right instead of what losers do wrong, and it's probably affecting you more than you realize.

You Don't See What Doesn't Survive

If you've ever faced a long wait at a restaurant, only to leave and discover another long line at another restaurant, you might have thought, "Wow, the restaurant industry is booming. Maybe I should start my own restaurant!" That's the survivorship bias: You focused on the successful restaurants because they're what you see, and you didn't realize how very many restaurants have failed because they've disappeared from the neighborhood.

As lucrative as opening a restaurant may seem, up to 95 percent of restaurants fail within the first year. Likewise, we hear about tech entrepreneurs founding billion-dollar startups in their garages, but the fact is that 99 percent of Silicon Valley startups sputter out before hitting the big time. Success isn't just about what to do right; it's also about what not to do wrong. Winners, however, may not know what bad decisions to avoid, because it's likely they were lucky enough to avoid them in the first place.

Failures Are Your Friends

Understanding this bias can help people solve important problems. Take a problem the U.S. military faced in WWII: half of bomber pilots didn't make it through a tour of duty. Engineers couldn't cover their planes in armor because they wouldn't get off the ground, so they had to figure out the few key spots that needed extra protection. The commanders noticed that the returning bombers all tended to have bullet holes along the wings, around the tail gunner, and down the center of the body, so naturally, they wanted to add armor there. But a statistician named Abraham Wald pointed out that this was exactly the wrong thing to do: because these were bombers that returned, the holes showed where they could take damage and still survive. The areas where the surviving planes hadn't taken damage were where they needed protection, because that was surely where the downed planes had been hit.

From Fortune 500 companies and pro athletes to diet gurus and pop stars, successes are everywhere. It's tempting to look to them for lessons in your own life, as if their morning routine or exercise regimen or unusual management technique will be the key to you finding success of your own. But everything is about balance, and if you don't remember the mistakes of failures in equal measure, you're worse off for it.

Our Favorite Content About Cognitive Biases

How Survivor Bias Affects Decisions

From military planes to sturdy old buildings, find out why looking at only those who survive keeps you from making the best decisions.

Brains vs. Bias

Everyone has bias. It's just a matter of identifying it when it pops up.

Confirmation Bias

Your brain loves confirming that it's right—even when it's not.

Written by Curiosity Staff December 8, 2016

Curiosity uses cookies to improve site performance, for analytics and for advertising. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies, our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.