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Photo by Jacek Dylag

What is Survivorship Bias?

Add this important mental model to your latticework.

Julia Clavien
Oct 10, 2019 · 2 min read

Once you’re aware of survivorship bias, you won’t be able to help but notice it everywhere! 👀

What is Survivorship Bias?

Survivorship Bias is our tendency to focus on successful examples and ignore failures. The failures often didn’t survive to be seen, so we miss them. The outcomes that we tend to focus on were the ones that “survived” — hence the name survivorship bias.

When we only take into account the successful examples, this leads to a distorted view of reality. In the book The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb said:

The cemetery of failed restaurants is very silent.

He’s suggesting that we might easily be affected by survivorship bias when looking at the restaurant industry.

Take the story of a new restaurant owner, entering the restaurant business for the first time. They didn’t see (or focus on) the huge proportion of entrants that failed, but instead focused on a few of the very best that survived — buoying their enthusiasm and confidence of success. Entering the restaurant business looked like great way to make a living! Unfortunately the restaurant failed. In fact, a large proportion of entrants into the restaurant are doomed to fail.

In the Media

An even easier way to find examples of survivorship bias is to just look at any media outlet! They’re littered with coverage of leading athletes or entrepreneurs and their so-called secrets to success.

One classic is the coverage of the story of Bill Gates dropping out of Harvard then becoming a billionaire… (or more recently Mark Zuckerberg). This is contrasted by near zero mentions of the college dropouts who arent billionaires.

Here’s a perfect example in an article from CNBC. There isn’t any mention of all the college dropouts that didn’t achieve what Gates did:

These entrepreneurs bucked convention and still achieved success. Classic survivorship bias.

We should be skeptical of these kinds of examples, which trigger our survivorship bias by leaving out any mention of the failed cases — in effect leaving them hidden.

To close — here’s one more illustration that sums up survivorship bias super well — an extreme example from the clever xkcd comic. 😂

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Photo by xkcd

Want to go deeper?

📖 The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a brilliant book (it’s where I first came across the concept of survivorship bias).

📧 Like learning mental models? Check out my newsletter here.

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Julia Clavien

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Curious to a fault. Technology | Psychology | Philosophy. All opinion subject to change. ☺ linktr.ee/juliaclavien

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment. Join thousands of others making the climb on Medium.

Julia Clavien

Written by

Curious to a fault. Technology | Psychology | Philosophy. All opinion subject to change. ☺ linktr.ee/juliaclavien

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment. Join thousands of others making the climb on Medium.

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