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How to Beat Survivorship Bias

Following successful role models can have dangerous consequences.

Key points

  • Having successful role models is a key source of motivation for many people.
  • Unfortunately, the narrow focus on a few successful “survivors” can trigger “survivorship bias.”
  • Survivorship bias entails people losing sight of overall success rates when pursuing goals.
  • By keeping a sense of perspective, the motivational benefits of role models can outweigh the dangers of survivorship bias.
Vlad Chetan/Pexels
Survivorship bias can have dangerous consequences.
Source: Vlad Chetan/Pexels

Have you been following the Olympics? Watching an exciting variety of different sports (who knew that skateboarding could be so mesmerising) and rooting for your national athletes isn’t just entertaining. Large sporting events can have the added effect of inspiring “ordinary” people to get off the couch and start moving. Successful athletes and sports personalities often act as role models and motivate people to follow their example. Inspired by key members of their favourite sports teams, for example, children frequently list professional athletes and dancers as their dream jobs. Indeed, even my husband, an enthusiastic but essentially clumsy hobby footballer, only recently gave up his dream of following in the footsteps of his childhood hero Robbie Fowler. He came to this difficult conclusion after reaching the age of Liverpool FC’s oldest player, and, with a heavy heart, decided to commit to an “ordinary” career as a medical doctor from now on.

Becoming a successful athlete is an admirable aspiration, but it’s important to keep a sense of perspective. Only 180 of 1.5 million youth footballers in the UK are likely to reach their goal and make it as professional players in the Premier League. I’ve done the math for you and here’s some bad news: 99.99 percent of all young football hopefuls will end up disappointed. Similarly, male basketball players in the US only have a 0.03 percent chance of turning their sporty hobby into a professional career.

Survivorship Bias

Losing sight of the overall statistics and ignoring the objective chances of success is a common mistake when following big role models. This tendency has been termed “Survivorship Bias.” It refers to people overestimating their likelihood of succeeding by focusing on a few lucky overachievers or “survivors,” who managed to beat the odds. Sure, a handful of outstanding athletes like Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, and Mo Farah fulfil their dreams of winning multiple Olympic medals. However, these athletes are the exception, not the rule. They represent rare outliers on the normal distribution curve of athletic achievement.

Survivorship bias is not limited to the area of professional sports. Here are a few more examples from other sectors:

  • Business start-ups: Many people decide to embark on the adventure of starting their own company without considering the many risks involved. Focusing on a selected number of business moguls such as Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, they often overestimate their own likelihood of making it big.
  • Talent contests: The number of televised talent contests seems to be ever-increasing. The 20th season of the popular US singing competition American Idol just received its greenlight and is bound to attract millions of new vocal wonders waiting to be discovered. Only a negligible number of competitors embarked on a successful singing career following their participation in the contest, yet people remain surprisingly optimistic and imagine themselves as the next Kelly Clarkson.
  • Best-selling books: A common saying states that everybody has a story in them. Indeed, millions of people dream of becoming best-selling authors and channelling their inner J. K. Rowling. However, with a constantly increasing number of self-published books available on Amazon, the chances of writing a life-changing novel are slim.

Is Survivorship Bias Problematic?

While evidence for survivorship bias is plentiful, you may question its negative consequences. Surely, role models can be strong motivators, inspiring ordinary people to surpass themselves, grow inner strength and discipline, and persevere during adverse circumstances? Especially in the context of sports, this must be considered an advantage. With obesity levels at an all-time high, shouldn’t we welcome any factors that increase people’s interest in physical activity?

It is true that survivorship bias can be a key source of motivation. Nevertheless, a number of dangerous consequences for people’s decision-making must not be underestimated. These include:

  1. Neglecting reasons for failure: The singular focus on lucky overperformers distracts from the many people who tried to achieve similar goals but failed. People tend to analyse reasons for success in the survivors, and disregard reasons for failure in those who didn’t make it. For instance, when starting a business, fresh entrepreneurs try to emulate powerful business moguls and forget to pay attention to everyday hurdles such as maintaining enough working capital.
  2. Taking disproportionate risks: By overlooking the baseline probabilities of success, people may be misled into taking disproportionately large risks. Passionate amateur singers, for example, may be tempted into abandoning their education or quitting their day jobs to focus on their vocal careers. They often end up regretting their risky choices afterwards.
  3. Not knowing when to give up: The motivation to pursue a goal at all costs can turn out to be dangerous if people fail to recognise when it’s time to give up. Aspiring athletes, for example, may end up pushing themselves beyond their capabilities and sustaining dangerous injuries.

How to Beat Survivorship Bias

As a passionate hobby yogi, who follows many famous yoga teachers and athletes on social media, I am all too aware of the risks associated with survivorship bias. Sure, I’d love to have a yoga YouTube channel with millions of followers like Adriene Mishler. I’d also like to master amazing, one-handed arm balances like super-human Dylan Werner. But it’s important to stay realistic.

Keeping a sense of perspective is essential for harnessing the positive motivational aspects of having role models, while managing the dangers associated with more serious forms of survivorship bias.

LinkedIn image: Petr Toman/Shutterstock