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  • Writer's pictureKen Kowach

Survivorship Bias: How Social Media is destroying our wellbeing and happiness

Over the past few years, success, self-development, and personal wellness have become a large obsession for me. That is why you’re seeing this blog that I now write because it is a way that I can share with others the things that I find and learn about.

But an interesting concept that I learned about recently was the survivorship bias. This concept made aware to me something very crucial in my search for success and personal wellness.

It made me aware that almost all of us (probably all of us) are constantly learning about success stories and attempting to use them as a blueprint to find wealth, achievement, and fulfillment, none more especially than on social media.

It turns out… this is a problem, a very big problem... and it's getting worse.


Bottom Line Up Front

Survivorship bias is the logical mistake of focusing on information that has survived some sort of selection or weeding out process. The problem in survivorship bias is not gathering all data in order to paint a complete picture, allowing for more accurate assumptions and decisions.

In survivorship bias, the issue comes from data not being gathered from failed and removed instances.

In social media, survivorship bias has caused an immense deformation in standards of success, achievement, beauty and image, caused by the filter of mediocrity of legitimate real-life standards.


The Classic Survivorship Bias Example

First, let us take a dive into history and discuss one of the most easy-to-understand examples of survivorship bias. Once you get through this example, you’ll understand exactly what survivorship bias is.

During World War II, there existed this panel called the Applied Mathematics Panel. Long story short, they existed because the convenience of computers did not exist back then as they do today. Their job was to crunch numbers and provide results based upon gathered data in order to find results in how to improve warfighter functions.

An example of this was a potential improvement in World War 2 long-range bombers. Well, the panel had these cards that bomber crews would fill out. They were very simple. All the bomber crews had to do was depict on the card where they had taken damage during the bombing run.

Well, they collected a ton of this information and over time they found out that most of the damage was in the areas depicted with all of the dots in the image.

abraham wald world war 2 bomber plane

It became very obvious to military commanders what they should do, which was to armor those areas that took the most damage since they couldn’t armor up the entire aircraft as it wouldn’t be able to take off.

Luckily, a very intelligent man named Abraham Wald who worked in the Applied Mathematics Panel understood what survivorship bias was. He theorized that the areas showing the most damage from the statistics gathered were all the areas that they did not need to fortify with armor. In fact, it was the opposite. The reason for this was because these aircraft that made it back were able to show that they took damage commonly found in those concentrated areas.

This conversely meant that the areas that they had not been collecting data showed that they were from aircraft that never made it back. It showed that the fortifications needed to go in those areas where the least amount of damage was being taken.

So, because of survivorship bias, the solution was the opposite of what was originally thought to be the issue.

This critical understanding of survivorship bias undoubtedly saved thousands of lives of bomber crews throughout the war, as it significantly increased their rate of survival.


Other Examples of Survivorship Bias

Let's switch gears and talk about some more relatable examples, especially ones that can segue into social media… since that's really what I want to pick on.

Profitable videogame streamers on Twitch and Mixer are stacked with the lion's share of viewers going to the top 1%. We only see the success of the very top, but what we don't see are the thousands of other streamers that don't have any success at all.

kabby mixer streamer
Source: Mixer

My brother runs the Mixer Channel Kabby TV, and he happens to be a successful videogame streamer. He’s a prime example of somebody who is above the 1% cut line. In fact, he has consistently been among the top 25 most-watched streamers on Mixer.

With survivorship bias, one may assume that we can follow the basic blueprint of what he is doing to be successful, but unfortunately, this is simply not possible. Here's why.

He began streaming on Mixer in early 2017 before they were even called Mixer, a few months after they were acquired by Microsoft. Because of this, he has been able to stay largely ahead of most of his competition, not only by providing genuine, high-quality entertainment to hundreds of thousands of followers on a near-daily basis but by being well established with a solid fanbase foundation by the time Mixer really started taking off with having a huge saturation of streamers.

And so, his blueprint can't be followed since we can't go back in time and jump on the early Mixer bandwagon to be a videogame streamer.

Moreover, if we were able to follow his blueprint for success, we won't learn anything from the thousands and thousands of streamers who eventually gave up. We will never learn their blueprint for failure, or what they had gapped on, that caused a failure to launch.

This is even more prevalent on Youtube. About 97% of Youtubers will never crack the poverty threshold.


Social Media has skewed our standards due to survivorship bias

Survivorship bias is constantly all around us, and it has skewed our standards, especially about success. I have talked about the secret of highly successful people, a study conducted over decades by Napoleon Hill. You can read about it here:

But the issue nowadays is how disfigured in an unhealthy way people's baseline for success, achievement, and happiness has become due to the internet, especially social media.

all we need are likes graffiti

People typically post on social media their highly memorable moments, and so the mundane, everyday moments of life do not survive to make it onto social media. We all do it, and it only makes sense because we aren't going to post the mediocre days of our lives when nothing happens.

(Actually, remember when people used to do that all the time? Like… "time to hit the gym." or things like that… that was very 2010.)

But even though we all know that we are just posting our "best" photos and videos, of the most memorable moments, we see others doing it too, and it skews our perception of the standard of what average life should look like.

Hundreds of your friends are posting exciting things happening in their lives, and your social media news feed will have all mundane life experiences filtered out, your brain does not see it that way.

And it is getting worse. Social media has become a larger and larger part of our lives. I would estimate that between 2010 and 2015, it was acceptable to not have a Facebook account.

Nowadays, people are looked at oddly when they don't have a social media presence. They're typically associated with being a paranoid individual, a prepper, or like my father who is technologically inept.


How to correct

I've discussed Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs in my article, Self-actualization: Stop wasting your money (and start finding fulfillment).

It is important to understand what the five levels of needs are that he describes:

  • Level 1: Physiological Needs: This is the base of the pyramid. It includes things such as air, water, food, and sleep.

  • Level 2: Safety Needs: This level includes personal security, employment, health, and property.

  • Level 3: Love and Belonging: This level includes friendship, intimacy, family, and a sense of connecting.

  • Level 4: Esteem: This is where it gets interesting. At this level of the hierarchy, respect, self-esteem, status, recognition, and freedom come into play.

  • Level 5: Self-actualization: This is the level at which the desire to achieve deep fulfillment through profound purpose comes.

Here's why I brought up Maslow's Pyramid. If we take a look at what social media typically fulfills for most of us, it is going to be somewhere between levels three and four of the pyramid. We are typically using social media to stay connected with friends and family.

Outside of this, we are looking to fulfill level four of the pyramid. By garnering more likes on our social media posts, we are able to increase our recognition and self-esteem, and it enables us to feel a higher status when we are sometimes the center of attention.

I'm sure there are a handful of genuine other reasons why people use social media, but by and far, it is to fulfill levels three and four of the pyramid.

It's going to be hard to argue that social media is typically used to fulfill self-actualization needs.

And that's what I'm trying to get at.

Self-actualization is defined as “the realization or fulfillment of one's talents and potentialities, especially considered as a drive or need present in everyone.”

As I stated before in my other article, we should be on a lifelong journey seeking self-actualization, our "higher purpose" as the more religiously rigid may feel comfortable with calling it. It will allow us to find deep meaning and fulfillment.

dynamic maslows hierarchy of needs

And we're not going to be able to do that if we're constantly fighting an uphill battle with an imaginary set of success, beauty, and image standards that social media portrays to us. It'll cause us to become stuck at levels three and four of the pyramid, as depicted above.


Final Word

Don't allow social media to suck you into a skewed reality. Survivorship bias is a real thing, and it tricks our brain into trying to play catch up (with imaginary things) at levels three and four of the pyramid, even though we may be completely A-OK at these levels.

If our brains are returning a false positive at levels three and four, we will spend the majority of our energy trying to fulfill ourselves at those levels, and never working towards achieving self-actualization, or our best selves.

So learn to put the phone down, or limit yourselves on social media.

If not, engrain into your brains that the deck is stacked against you because of survivorship bias when you're scrolling your news feed. But be warned, even then, don't forget that thoughts are things. The eyes are the windows to the soul.


The Woke Hack


Time to Pay it Forward

Let me know how you handle social media limitations or don't How do you keep yourself sane? (I'm lucky enough to where my Facebook glitched out and I get no notification, in turn keeping me off my account for the most part)

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