Survivorship Bias Can Be Interesting

I just finished reading Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. It’s an interesting book to read although it took me an incredibly long time to circle back to it and finish it. But I did and I’m glad I did so.

One of the concepts he discusses towards the end of the book is the concept of survivorship bias. Here’s a link to a very long article about it which describes survivorship bias as “your tendency to focus on survivors instead of whatever you would call a non-survivor depending on the situation. Sometimes that means you tend to focus on the living instead of the dead, or on winners instead of losers, or on successes instead of failures.”

It’s a pernicious problem in self-publishing. Because most of the people giving advice now are the ones who “survived” to give that advice. And most of those people assume that what they did is why they survived.

But that’s not necessarily true.

Let me give an unrelated example. I watch the Price is Right almost every day while I’m eating lunch. And the way that people bid on that show is sometimes outrageously painful. I blogged about this on my old blog here. But basically what happens is that sometimes the person who wins the bidding round does so by sheer unadulterated luck.

This is the person who bids $1250 when the other three bids were $750, $1000, and $1500. They win because the price of the item was $1300 but it wasn’t a smart bid given the other three bids that had already been made. That bid shows no understanding whatsoever of how to maximize the odds of winning. Because by bidding $1250 that person gave away the chance to win if the item was actually priced from $1001 to $1249. And they have no idea that’s what they did. They don’t even see it. All they see is that they won, so they think they did it right. They don’t see how close they came to losing.

This happens with self-publishing, too. Someone will say, “I made half a million dollars self-publishing by doing x, so everyone should do it my way.” And at first blush that seems like someone worth listening to, right? They made half a million dollars. They must know how to do this.

But maybe they’re just the one survivor out of a hundred people who followed the same ill-advised strategy and they just happen to have succeeded where all others who followed the same path failed.  The 99 people who failed aren’t there to give their stories of failure. All we have is the one story of success.

That’s survivorship bias at work.

So if someone says something that doesn’t sit right with you, question it. Not with them, because they’ll get all snarky about their success and how you’re clearly an ill-informed fool to doubt them (ask me how I know). But look around. Try to disprove their advice. Find counter-examples. Look for the shattered failures to get the full picture. Remember that you’re talking to a survivor, you’re not looking at an unbiased sample.

Author: M.L. Humphrey

I'm a former securities regulator, registered stockbroker (although only briefly), and consultant on regulatory and risk-related matters for large financial institutions with expertise in the areas of anti-money laundering regulation, mutual funds, and credit rating agencies. Since 2013 I have also been a published author who writes under a variety of pen names across non-fiction, mystery, fantasy, and romance.

2 thoughts on “Survivorship Bias Can Be Interesting”

  1. This is a great post, I’m glad you wrote this. I’ve listened to or read a lot of advice over the years, and sometimes the advice is extremely contradictory. When you start digging deeper into it and looking for those ‘failure cases,’ you see patterns and you start to understanding. The best example I can given are all of those self-pubbed authors who tell you ‘write and publish a novel every one or two months, that’s how I made all my money.’ Sure, that works for them (and probably only short-term, but that’s another topic.) But how many authors out there have done that but aren’t making six figures?

    That’s why I like your blog posts, very analytical, and even when you succeed, you question why and how and whether it was luck or not. It’s always an interesting and enlightening read here 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Glad you liked it.

      (What triggered this was seeing someone very adamantly state that the best way to reach a high level of sales was to never advertise your books and just keep publishing blind which worked for them but I think is horrible advice for most new writers.)

      Like

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