Ben Woodhead Deputy editor - digital

Ben Woodhead is deputy editor - digital at the Financial Review Group. He writes on business, technology, politics and the economy and can be found on BRW, The Australian Financial Review and Smart Investor.

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Survivor bias: why following success could doom you to fail

Published 16 July 2013 07:29, Updated 18 July 2013 00:45

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Survivor bias: why following success could doom you to fail

The US Army Air Force discovered it could learn more from aircraft that were hit and didn’t make it back than those that survived. The fact failures often disappear from view leads many to overlook the potentially more valuable lessons those examples hold than following successful people. Getty Images

If all you’re looking at are other people’s successes, you could be missing the most important lessons for getting ahead.

It’s called survivorship bias and it’s an idea that has its roots in World War II, when mathematician Abraham Wald helped steer the US Army Air Forces away from a potentially costly mistake.

Journalist and author David McRaney tells the story on his blog, You Are Not So Smart. The background: the USAAF was suffering huge losses of life and aircraft and was studying planes that had made it back to base for signs of how to better protect them.

Holes in US aircraft showed where they could take damage and still survive, rather than indicating where they needed more protection.Getty Images

“Over and over again, [the military] saw the bullet holes tended to accumulate along the wings, around the tail gunner, and down the centre of the body. Wings. Body. Tail gunner. Considering this information, where would you put the extra armour? Naturally, the commanders wanted to put the thicker protection where they could clearly see the most damage . . . But Wald said no, that would be precisely the wrong decision. Putting the armour there wouldn’t improve their chances at all,” McRaney writes.

“The holes showed where a bomber could be shot and still survive the flight home . . . Look at where the survivors are unharmed, [Wald] said, and that’s where these bombers are most vulnerable; that’s where the planes that didn’t make it back were hit.”

McRaney explores the tendency of people to look towards successes rather than failures for guidance and how the fact failures often disappear from view leads many to overlook the potentially more valuable lessons those examples hold.

Citing a 10-year study of 400 people of all professions and ages, McRaney also looks at luck and how predicting who is lucky and unlucky may not be as random as it seems.

The study found unlucky people tended to be narrowly focused and anxious, whereas lucky people tended to change routine regularly and seek out new experiences.

In the same way, McRaney says survivorship bias leads people to focus too narrowly on success, believing it’s more common than it actually is.

“If you spend your life only learning from survivors, buying books about successful people and poring over the history of companies that shook the planet, your knowledge of the world will be strongly biased and enormously incomplete,” says McRaney.

“As best I can tell, here is the trick: when looking for advice, you should look for what not to do . . . but don’t expect to find it among the quotes and biographical records of people whose signals rose above the noise. They may have no idea how or if they lucked up.”

Read the full article on You Are Not So Smart