During World War II, fighter planes would come back from battle with holes. Engineers noted the areas where airplanes were hit and assumed they need to strengthen the most frequently damaged parts to build stronger aircraft.
A mathematician, Abraham Wald, pointed out that the enemy does not spare areas with no bullet holes. The planes with such holes did not return at all—they only see data on the plants that survived; the most fatal bullet hole areas were in different spots on the planes that never came back.
And that’s the danger of survivorship bias.
The most popular real world application of this bias in effect I hear these days is around successful people. A successful person may tell you these tips like “Work harder than others!” or “Follow your passion!” Yet what we don’t account for is the graveyard of thousands or millions of people who followed the same advice and never succeeded.
So then, what do we do?
I don’t have all the answers. I can say that we can’t just accept any guarantee that we’ll succeed even if we follow all the tips out there. There’s plenty of people with good intentions and advice that may not work for you. It’s often valuable to spend time with and examine the losers, not just the winners.
What I can pose is something the DJ David Guetta said recently, which is that there’s no guarantee of success. What you will have is the fulfillment to know that you tried and gave your fullest at something you wanted to rather than live with the regret of “what if?”
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What other areas of life do you think this bias is causing an effect? In what other scenarios are we only “seeing the planes that come back?” Is it successful YouTubers giving advice? Successful businessmen? People who are good with relationships or fitness? I wonder what other unique applications of this are creating havoc?