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.