This digestible, compelling social science text reexamines the stories that people have been told by and about society’s winners.
Former Stanford business lecturer David Lockwood parses a variety of survivor bias examples in his social science text Fooled by the Winners.
The book defines survivor bias as the cultural tendency to focus on the experiences of survivors and winners while leaving out the experiences of those who failed, or who did not survive. It argues that such positive stories dominate public narratives, fooling people into prioritizing the examples of exceptions, rather than of rules—and into thinking that favorable outcomes are more common than not.
Drawing on ample articles, books, and his own background in economics, Lockwood argues that this “logical error” is a problem, articulating notions of what’s at stake when survivor biases are overlooked. At its most benign, survivor bias is credited with wasting people’s time and money; at its most dangerous, it is said to render human beings inert and complacent, even when they’re threatened with their own extinction.
The book begins with the more benign forms of survivor bias, with a focus on how people are fooled by others. It identifies pervasive survivor biases in consumer habits, military research, history, and science, explaining on repeat how focusing on winners manipulates the way that people behave and think.
Still, the book’s plentiful examples often demonstrate the same blind spot: that the losers’ or failures’ stories were not included. This retreading of ground, coupled with the sheer quantity of the book’s examples, stymies the text, which is otherwise engaging. Most interesting are the book’s provisions of background information about important historical figures like Joseph Rhine, who coined the term “extrasensory perception,” or ESP.
In its later portions, the book expands its concept of survivor bias to cover how survivors fool themselves. It comes to focus on big-picture problems, like nuclear war and climate change, warning against the social tendency to do nothing in the face of grave danger, with the reasoning that human beings have survived so far, and can be trusted to continue to do so. The book becomes almost dizzying as it catalogs under-acknowledged threats to human survival; still, it is careful about unpacking its complex theories for general audiences, including the Fermi paradox and the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.
Fooled by the Winners is a digestible and compelling social science text that uses a bevy of examples to urge people to reexamine the stories they’ve been told by and about society’s winners.
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