How Survivor Bias Could Have Killed Thousands During the World Wars
Have you been a victim of this phenomenon
We have all heard stories about people who have smoked all their life and lived to be in their nineties. The drinkers boast of drinking twenty pints a day and have no problem with their liver. These are all examples of survivor bias.
Consider why we do not hear about people who have smoked all their life but didn’t make their eighties or the drinkers that didn’t get past fifty drinks every day. Simply put, it is because they are dead.
These are simple examples, but others appear in history that left big impressions on the world.
What is Survivor Bias?
Survivor bias is a cognitive fallacy in which we focus on what successful individuals or products did rather than the group as a whole.
When we follow our instinct to learn from the successful, this can backfire when we should be looking at the entire group.
World War II Planes
Abraham Wald was a Hungarian-Jewish statistician that saved much American life during the Second World War. The problem he was tasked with solving was where to reinforce planes during the fighting.
Reinforce too much of the plane and they would be too heavy to fly. Don’t improve certain areas and more innocent lives will be lost.
The problem was simple; the airforce wanted to reduce the casualty rate of their squadrons. They noticed that most of their planes were returning to base riddled with bullet holes in three main areas: the fuselage, outer wings and tail.
From this information, they surmised that the answer to their problems was reinforcing these three areas. Many military men thought this was an excellent idea until Wald was consulted.
Wald correctly deduced that if planes could return with these bullet holes in these areas, the other areas needed reinforcing because those planes were not returning at all.
World War I Helmets
A similar incident arose during the First World War. Early on in the war, the helmets were changed to a new supplier who provided what appeared to be safer helmets, named the Brodie helmet.
Shortly after, the generals noticed that their hospitals were overrun with patients suffering from head injuries. This alarmed the generals as they concluded the new helmets could not be protecting their soldiers.
What was the truth was that the helmets meant the soldiers were returning with head injuries, but the helmets had saved their lives. Previous to this, the soldiers were returning in body bags without needing a hospital bed.
They Don’t Make Them Like They Used To
Like many of us, I have been guilty of survivor bias. So many times, I have uttered the words that we live in a consumerist world, that goods today do not last as they did in my grandma’s day.
Whether it was televisions or cars, this could be true. When we introduce survivor bias, however, this tells a different story.
The few products that remain working are high-quality goods. In comparison, low-quality goods from years ago can be found on the rubbish tip.
When we make statements like, they don’t last like they used to, we compare the low-quality goods we purchase with the high-quality goods of the past.
Survivor Bias is Everywhere
These are a few examples of survivor bias impacting the world and our thoughts. There are examples in our everyday life that we miss.
You have been a victim if you joined a gym this New Year because you saw the glossy pictures of all the toned members. It stands to reason that gyms would not put pictures of those who had never used their facilities but paid for them every month.
Hearing about successful people who defy the odds helps us stay positive and reach for that impossible dream. However, you would be wise to remember survivor bias when you see it; otherwise, you could follow the impossible dream to no conclusion.