Everyone loves a survivor.
We love watching movies like Gladiator, where a muscular Russell Crowe stands tall after defeating wave after wave of enemies.
Sometimes, however, we concentrate on the fact of surviving and fixate on that, and overlook everything else. This is a well known cognitive bias that psychologists refer to as “survivorship bias.”
Put simply, survivorship bias describes our tendency to focus on the people or things that have passed some kind of selection process—whether it’s literal survival in the gladiator pits, or getting a perfect score on a standardized test—and forgetting about other important factors.
Survivorship bias explains why people often believe that cars that were made 50 years ago last longer than those made today—even though these ideas are empirically false. The problem with falling prey to survivorship data is that it clouds your judgment and distracts you from getting to the root cause of a problem within your personal life, your team, or your product. It makes it easy to pattern-match and conflate correlation with causation.
Understanding survivorship bias and how it can cloud your judgment is the key to becoming a sharper, more critical thinking. That can lead to better team-decision making, building a more cohesive product, or making data-driven decisions like a scientist. Let’s walk through some examples!