Friday, June 7, 2013

Survivorship Bias

Good morning.
“And the beat goes on..........................”

Survivorship Bias:
Back in 2010, I wrote a blog on studying our failures.  I suggested that in addition to our looking at “best practices”, we also ought to consider paying more attention to “Worst Practices” – studying and analyzing decision making and model adoption that didn’t work, and looking at why it didn’t work – so we can share ways to avoid at least the worst case scenarios.  “Certainly we can learn from our successes, but very likely people learn as much, if not more, from their failures. And we (the nonprofit arts sector) need to figure out some way to learn from our past mistakes – including the most recent ones in the face of all the challenges now on our plates.”

I recently ran across a blog entry on the concept of “survivorship bias” (thank you Carter Gilles), wherein the author (David McRaney) posited this:

"The Misconception: You should study the successful if you wish to become successful.
The Truth: When failure becomes invisible, the difference between failure and success may also become invisible.
“Simply put, (McRaney suggests), 'survivorship bias' is 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 is easy to do. After any process that leaves behind survivors, the non-survivors are often destroyed or muted or removed from your view. If failures becomes invisible, then naturally you will pay more attention to successes. Not only do you fail to recognize that what is missing might have held important information, you fail to recognize that there is missing information at all. 
You must remind yourself that when you start to pick apart winners and losers, successes and failures, the living and dead, that by paying attention to one side of that equation you are always neglecting the other. 
Survivorship bias also flash-freezes your brain into a state of ignorance from which you believe success is more common than it truly is and therefore you leap to the conclusion that it also must be easier to obtain. You develop a completely inaccurate assessment of reality thanks to a prejudice that grants the tiny number of survivors the privilege of representing the much larger group to which they originally belonged.”
That theory may have relevance to us in the nonprofit arts field.  We may too often point to the successes and believe that an analysis of what they are doing can be replicated and facilitate the success of others, when in fact, the elements that made for a successful nonprofit organization, operation or project may be so random and individualized as to have very little connection to the prospects of any other attempt to duplicate that success based on their experience as a model.

The author further discusses the concept of ‘luck’ being often critically instrumental in something’s success, but debunks the notion that ‘luck’ itself is necessarily the result of the fates or some uncontrollable intervening hand.
“the latest psychological research indicates that luck is a long mislabeled phenomenon. It isn’t a force, or grace from the gods, or an enchantment from fairy folk, but the measurable output of a group of predictable behaviors. Randomness, chance, and the noisy chaos of reality may be mostly impossible to predict or tame, but luck is something else. According to psychologist Richard Wiseman, luck – bad or good – is just what you call the results of a human beings consciously interacting with chance, and some people are better at interacting with chance than others.” 
“Unlucky people miss chance opportunities because they are too focused on looking for something else. They go to parties intent on finding their perfect partner and so miss opportunities to make good friends. They look through newspapers determined to find certain type of job advertisements and as a result miss other types of jobs. Lucky people are more relaxed and open, and therefore see what is there rather than just what they are looking for.” – Richard Wiseman in an article written for Skeptical Inquirer.”
When we talk about risk taking, we are talking precisely about being more open to possibilities, about altering our behavior to seeing more around us, about doing things differently than we have always done them so as to come up with different results.  Perhaps what we are really talking about is opening the door to what we think of as ‘luck’.

McRaney concluded his blog post with this:
“As best I can tell, here is the trick: When looking for advice, you should look for what not to do, for what is missing as Phil Plait suggested, 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. What you can’t see, and what they can’t see, is that the successful tend to make it more probable that unlikely events will happen to them while trying to steer themselves into the positive side of randomness. They stick with it, remaining open to better opportunities that may require abandoning their current paths, and that’s something you can start doing right now without reading a single self-help proverb, maxim, or aphorism. Also, keep in mind that those who fail rarely get paid for advice on how not to fail, which is too bad because despite how it may seem, success boils down to serially avoiding catastrophic failure while routinely absorbing manageable damage.”
Perhaps we ought to heed that advice.

Have a good week.

Don’t Quit

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