Survivorship Bias: Is the Grass Really Greener on the Other Side?

By Shubhangi Butta

Imagine admiring the field across yours for its greenery, wishing yours could’ve been just half as beautiful. It’s almost as if the fence is flaunting the green garnishes spread across that float on top of it. But ever wondered what other secrets might the fence be hiding? Ever wondered that it probably sits there just to obstruct our view? To let us witness only the plants that could healthily grow taller than the fence, making the picture look all rosy? Remove the fence and there’s a high chance you see a plethora of dead, brown grass that covers the land and could not grow tall enough to represent itself, unlike the handful green ones that exist intermittently in tiny, scarce patches. This fence, precisely, is what our survivorship bias is all about.

Survivorship bias recognizes an error in the human belief system where we tend to make conclusions about the situation focusing solely on the elements which seem evident enough to be in the foreground - just because they survived through a specific selection criteria. We take those elements as representatives of the entire situation and generalize our conclusions even to the elements that are not visible to us, owing to our lack of effort to gather reason and knowledge about the latter. To join the dots, the fence (which is analogous to our bias), when gotten rid of, gives us the true picture of the grass, which might after all, barely be green. 

Now, while this figurative narrative is only the idiomatic version of this bias, there are several scenarios where we could potentially reach problematic conclusions just because of our fence-like lens to view things. Imagine a city in the world that shows negligible cases of unhappy people. As a result, in our heads, we declare it as one of the happiest places to be and decide to visit it. On our arrival, we discover that people actually aren’t happy there but are so deeply oppressed that they are not even allowed to have a say and report their problems. Just going by the numbers and not bothering to dive into the why’s and how’s, we ranked that city way up on your list. On studying more, however, we find out a drastically contrasting nature of the city. Even a fabricated situation like this gives us a reality check about how severe it can be to perhaps be biased by the heavily filtered out figures that survived the authorities’ checks to be scribbled on papers. It indicates a measure of data that can potentially act as a source of our survivorship bias, and add to numerous fallacies in case of a lack of in-depth research.

Unfortunately, it’s not just these imaginations that showcase the potential risk of survivorship bias. There are also countless real-life cases that exemplify the role that survivorship bias plays in leading people to discrepancy-filled conclusions. We tend to set unrealistic goals and expectations for ourselves, just going by how perhaps the lives of other people look like, from afar. Be it celebrities, next-door neighbours, or social media influencers, we equate their lives with perfection and forget to consider the wide range of possibilities that may be getting executed behind the curtains as we speak. As a result, we burn ourselves out in the chase of something that doesn’t even exist.