Survivorship bias and confirmation bias are two distinct yet interconnected cognitive biases that significantly influence our perceptions, decision-making, and interpretation of information. Understanding their functions individually and in tandem can help us identify and mitigate their effects.
Survivorship bias occurs when we focus predominantly on the surviving or successful examples while overlooking those that failed or did not make it past a certain selection process. Imagine you’re studying the efficacy of various business strategies. If you only focus on the strategies employed by currently successful companies, you inadvertently ignore the strategies employed by companies that didn’t survive. This could lead to a skewed perspective, as failed strategies from the successful businesses, as well as strategies used by unsuccessful companies, aren’t accounted for. This lack of complete data might lead you to overestimate the success of certain strategies that only appear effective because unsuccessful cases have been eliminated from your analysis.
On the other hand, confirmation bias refers to the human tendency to seek, interpret, and remember information that aligns with our pre-existing beliefs, opinions, or hypotheses, while disregarding or downplaying conflicting evidence. Suppose you believe a certain investment strategy will yield high returns. In your research, you may unknowingly place greater emphasis on instances where this strategy succeeded, dismissing or not noticing instances where it led to significant losses. This bias can cause us to make overly optimistic or pessimistic judgements based on a limited or selective view of the evidence.
While survivorship bias and confirmation bias are two separate cognitive biases, they can often work together to distort our perspective and decision-making process. For instance, if an investor is researching investment strategies and has a preconceived belief that a certain type of investment (say, technology stocks) typically yields high returns (confirmation bias), they may selectively look for and remember successful tech companies, overlooking the many tech companies that fail (survivorship bias). The interaction of these two biases can create a distorted perspective of the investment landscape, amplifying the perceived success rate of tech stocks, and potentially leading the investor to take on more risk than they realise.
The interplay between survivorship bias and confirmation bias can create a perceptual echo chamber, which risks skewing our decisions and judgments. To counteract these effects, we need to employ objective reasoning and critical thinking.
Objective reasoning involves assessing information in an unbiased and balanced manner, taking into account all available evidence without allowing personal feelings or preconceived notions to cloud our judgement. Critical thinking, meanwhile, is the ability to analyse and evaluate an issue in order to form a judgement.
When evaluating a decision or piece of information, it’s important to first acknowledge any pre-existing beliefs we may have and consciously set them aside. This helps to clear the stage for objective reasoning. Then, we should actively seek out diverse sources of information, taking care to not disregard evidence that contradicts our initial assumptions or beliefs. This allows us to combat confirmation bias.
Furthermore, to counteract survivorship bias, we should ensure that our analysis takes into account both the successes and failures in any given context. This involves going beyond the most visible or successful examples and deliberately seeking out those that didn’t survive or succeed.
By engaging in objective reasoning and critical thinking, one can reduce survivorship and other biases from narrowing our perspective and instead make decisions that are informed by a broad and balanced understanding of the situation. With this approach, decisions are more likely to be accurate and robust, thereby improving the chances of success.