Survivorship Bias: How Past Success Breeds Complacency

by | Nov 10, 2021 | Be Vigilant Book | 0 comments


Hey, I’m Len Herstein, I’m the author of Be Vigilant! Strategies to Stop Complacency, Improve Performance, and Safeguard Success. And when I explain to people that one of the premises behind the book is that past success can be dangerous (it can actually make us more complacent), people are sometimes a little bit incredulous.

I mean how can success, the thing that we yearn for, we chase, become dangerous, right?

And so I explain that it boils down to this concept called survivorship bias. So I just wanted to quickly define what that is for you and then illustrate it with a quick story from my police work.

Okay, so I talk about this in the book too, but survivorship bias is a logic error. It involves focusing attention and analysis on people or things or projects, but only the ones that have made it past some qualifying or selection event and we ignore the ones that didn’t.

Now you’ve probably seen an internet meme, something to the effect of “hey, I survived spankings and lead paint and rusty playgrounds and riding around in station wagons backwards with no seat belts. Like if you did too.”

Well, now of course if you didn’t survive those things, you can’t ‘like,’ so by focusing only on successes and ignoring anything or anyone that failed. You can see how the analysis becomes optimistic, right? It can lead people to mistaking correlation for causality.

Now, essentially, survivorship bias means that the more you succeed, the more you believe, that what you did worked. Think about that for a minute, the more successful you are, the more confident you become, the more confident you become the less aware you become of potential threats or vulnerabilities and you’re more in danger of becoming complacent.

So that’s survivorship bias. Now for the police story that will illustrate it.

So I was working patrol one day and we got a call about a guy who’d been drinking a lot of alcohol at a bar and was trying to leave and people were trying to get him to stop, but he ignored them, jumped in his truck, and drove away.

So I get there. Obviously he’s gone, but they had his license plate number, I was able to track down where he lived, which wasn’t far away.

So I went over to his house with another deputy and we got there and I saw that his truck was out in the driveway, parked nose up, right, pushing on the garage door, like pushing it in, right? So I go up there and ring the doorbell, he answers the door and here’s this guy, he can barely stand and he’s got some blood coming down his forehead and I’m like, hey man, what happened? Are you okay?

And he takes his hand, he runs it through his bloody hair and he looks at me, he’s like, “I must have fallen out, I fell out of my car, my truck, when I got home.

I was like, when did you get home?

“Well, I just got home now.”

Where’d you come from?

“The bar.”

What were you doing there?


Okay, this is not rocket science to put this all together, right?

So he kind of admitted that he’d been drinking at the bar, he got in the truck, he drove home, he fell out of the truck, busted, his head, went inside. He had not eaten or drank anything or consumed anything since.

So I asked him if he would do some roadside maneuvers. And he got really super upset with me, right? First of all, he stepped out and I had to hold him up because he was almost falling over and he said, “what’s the problem?”

Right? He’s like, “why are you even here? Like I made it home, right? Like I didn’t hurt anybody. I didn’t get into any accidents (that he knew of, but he hadn’t). So what’s the problem? I got to my house, It’s all good.”

Right so now he had probably done this many times before. In fact, on average, I think
drunk drivers drive 80 times before they get pulled over, driving 80 times drunk. It’s crazy, right?

But for him, the end result was success. He had gone home with his truck and gotten in his house and nobody other than him, but he didn’t even realize at the time he had gotten hurt.

Survivorship bias.

Just because you survive doesn’t mean you’ve succeeded, right? And if you think that success is survival and is getting through certain stop gates, it can lead you to become complacent.

You don’t see the dangers that are out there. You don’t see the things that you’re doing wrong because of your survivorship bias.

So I’ll leave you with this.

Where are you seeing survivorship bias in your own business, in your own life? Things where you have been successful so you don’t examine it? You take survivorship as success, right?

If you’re seeing those things, those are specific areas you need to dig into where there might be some complacency again in your business or in your home life.

Success is not the end goal. Keeping it is.

Surviving is not success.

Survivorship bias, it’s a real thing and it will make your success become dangerous for you.

Until next time, I’m Len Herstein. Be vigilant!

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