“Survivorship bias” – an intriguing logical trap


There is a theory called the “Survivorship bias.” Its idea lies in the fact that one cannot draw conclusions solely based on the experience of the winners. If you want to discover the truth, ask those who have lost.

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This term belongs to the mathematician Abraham Wald. Initially, it was applied to the damages on Allied aircraft during World War II.

The losses of the aircraft were catastrophic – a single well-placed hit could turn a combat machine into a pile of wreckage. However, it was not possible to armor the planes too heavily because they also needed to carry bombs. Therefore, choices had to be made.

Observing the returning bombers riddled with bullet holes, the command concluded that they should reinforce the parts of the fuselage that most closely resembled a sieve: the wings, the lower part of the fuselage, and the tail section – as it was evident that these areas were frequently hit.

Error of the survivors.

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But Wald was the first to understand that this was a logical trap because the aircraft with those damages survived. The real threat was not the damages with which the planes returned home, but rather the damages that destroyed them – and those could not be studied. If an airplane can fly with a bullet hole in the wing, then attention should be focused on areas where there are no holes – perhaps precisely because they were not hit, the crew was able to return alive.

What prevented the military from making this simple conclusion on their own? It was quite simple – the destroyed planes remained on the battlefield and, consequently, were excluded from the analysis.

“The error of the survivors” is a principle that can be applied to any sphere of life. “Those who survive” are those who have achieved maximum success in their endeavors. They attract general attention, and people want to listen to or read about them. But all of them have returned to their airfields. To study and emulate their strengths is akin to studying the planes that survived…

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