Survivorship Bias

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"The survivor bias was evident in the reception of Walter Isaacson's 2011 best-selling biography of Steve Jobs, as readers scrambled to understand what made the mercurial genius so successful. Want to be the next Steve Jobs and create the next Apple Computer? Drop out of college and start a business with your buddies in the garage of your parents' home. How many people have followed the Jobs model and failed? Who knows? No one writes books about them and their unsuccessful companies."
Scientific American, "How the Survivor Bias Distorts Reality"

Survivorship Bias is the tendency to address a problem or issue by focusing only on the people who survive, benefit, or escape from it.

This is an Omnipresent Trope, due to the nature of The Protagonist trope. Because a fictional story focuses on a single character (or a small group of characters), they are presented to the audience as being more "important" than the people the story doesn't focus on, and the audience comes to naturally see themselves in those characters.

Horror, Conspiracy Thrillers, Disaster Movies, Oscar Bait films and other genres with large victim counts or other forms of systemic oppression, use this trope more than any other. Suspense relies upon the audience accepting a real and imminent danger, but at the same time empathizing with someone still IN danger. For that reason, other victims (past or present) are given less importance than the survivors telling the story. While this is sometimes unavoidable (after all, if there's a killer on the loose, then some people are already dead, so there's no helping them now), the audience is often expected to still feel the most relieved when the Final Girl survives the ordeal, feel their greatest distress when The Hero Dies like everyone else, or cheer for a less-deserving team because Underdogs Never Lose.

An even more troublesome version comes from movies Based on a True Story. For example, if the overall story is about a terrible event like a disaster or plague, or an ongoing problem such as poverty or oppression, focusing only on people who survived or overcame the problem can lead to the audience impression that anyone could have done it if they had just tried a little harder. This bias often interacts with the Just World Fallacy (a Logical Fallacy that assumes good things happen to good people etc.) to create the implication that those who died were somehow morally inferior. This leads to various horror and slasher film tropes in which characters will presage their deaths by certain attitudes or actions, such as having an abrasive personality or having premarital sex.

Take care before listing "Aversions" or "Subversions". On the one hand, while any story where Everybody Dies seems like an aversion, it depends on several factors, like:

  • Do they survive long enough to tell an entire story? Or, in a non-death example, does their particular problem get highlighted over a large number of similar examples (aka "Rosa Parks" Syndromenote )?
  • Does their death/problem have any meaningful impact on other survivors or people who can fix it? (aka Heroic Sacrifice, Inspirational Martyr or White Man's Burden)

If the answer is yes, then they aren't an "aversion" or "subversion", because the story is still biased towards them over the other victims involved.

Super Trope to Protagonist-Centered Morality. Sister Trope to "Shaggy Dog" Story. Sub-Trope to Anthropic Principle. Characters that understand the implications of this trope invoke Survivor Guilt. Because the bias is almost inevitable when The Protagonist trope is used, a Decoy Protagonist would be another way to play with this trope. Compare Dead to Begin With, where since they "survived" as an undead or something else, this trope is still played straight.

Tropes which rely on this often:

  • The Chosen One: The single person who will fix whatever problem the story focuses on. (Includes subtropes such as The Unchosen One, The Chosen Zero, etc.)
  • After the End: By its nature, the focus on this type of story is on what comes after the apocalypse, not on those who died during.
  • The American Dream: Finding your own noble destiny in America, despite the millions of people whose lives don't improve at all.
  • Final Girl: Everyone else is dead, but her survival is still the only concern on the audience's mind.
  • Hard Work Hardly Works: The character's survival is expected because they have a Gift on a certain skill that makes them important to the plot. If someone who has the same skill set because they worked all of their lives to gain it also appears, expect him to be either a Red Shirt or (at best) The Mentor who will recognize the character's Gift before being bumped off. Works that avert this trope will instead place much importance on experience, not "hard work" in general.
  • Inspirationally Disadvantaged: Being disadvantaged does not typically inspire anyone, but it always does in fiction.
  • Japanese Spirit: Any problem can be overcome if you have the proper combination of talent, resolve, and willpower. If you don't, then you probably aren't the main character.
  • Nominal Importance: Characters which are important to the plot will be given a name and followed around. Those who are nor important to the plot (and killed by the crowd-full) will probably not even be given a nickname or a profession for the audience to apply a nickname to. Expect this on works where A Million Is a Statistic.
  • Misery Builds Character: A person, or noble group of people, who have grown to have some sort of virtue or wisdom because they survived the bad thing. In effect, making it a "good thing" to a degree.
  • Rags to Riches: The story focuses on this character's journey from poverty to affluence, rather than the characters whose situation will not change.
  • Underdogs Never Lose: The unlikely team always wins. Which makes you wonder if the likely teams are now the unlikely ones.

Played With:

  • Decoy Protagonist: A character we follow for a period of time throughout the story who we believe is the focus of the story (and probably provides an interesting story during his time on the limelight), but the narrative tosses him away (sometimes on a nonchalantly lethal fashion, and maybe just up and forgotten) when a character that the story will focus on from now on (and maybe is more interesting) appears.
  • Found Footage Films: We know going in that the protagonists didn't survive whatever ordeal the plot focuses on. However, the premise relies on the fact that they usually last long enough for there to be someone to make the movie, which still places more focus on the (albeit still-doomed) survivors than the other victims.
  • Similar to the above, an Apocalyptic Log is an interesting interpretation of this trope when used inside of a story rather than as the story proper: it shows us the almost survivor we'd otherwise be focusing on, possibly even giving them scenes or flashbacks.
  • On works with Posthumous Narration, we may or may not know that the character is dead from the beginning, but the character still believes that he has a story worth telling (most probably in a "learn from what happened to me, don't let it happen to you" kind of way).

Examples

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     Film 
  • Zig-zagged in Psycho. While the Decoy Protagonist dies early in the film, after the story continues on, the narrative shifts its emotional investment to the surviving characters and Villain Protagonist.
  • Averted in All Quiet on the Western Front, every named protagonist dies by the end. It's justified since the film is based around an anti-war / War Is Hell message.
  • Averted in the 1932 film The Sign of the Cross, directed by Cecil B. DeMille. All the Christians die, as well as the male lead. All the named antagonists live and prosper (due to being actual historical people who died later).
  • Schindler's List: The entire premise of the film relies on this. However, it's a case of Tropes Are Not Bad, since it's a rare piece of good news coming from that era.
  • The Pianist: Deconstructed. Szpilman knows what fate awaits his family and many others, and has massive Survivor's Guilt.
  • Averted in Jerry Lewis's notorious unreleased Holocaust film The Day the Clown Cried. At the end, the eponymous clown dies, along with everyone he tried to help.
  • In Gravity, Ryan Stone is one out of two astronauts to survive the opening scenes, but she remains the central focus of the film even before George Clooney's character dies.
  • World Trade Center tells the true story of two Transit Authority cops who were buried in the rubble when the towers collapsed on 9/11 but miraculously survived. While the enourmous tragedy around them is not downplayed, the focus is on their survival and the people who ended up rescuing them.
  • Son of Saul: Averted, as the main protagonist is a Jew who dies in the Holocaust (specifically, an escape from Auschwitz), along with almost everyone he knows. Word of God from the director was that he set out to make a Holocaust movie that averted this trope.

    Literature 

    Live Action Television 
  • This is often an averted trope with episodic series prone to killing off the protagonists, like The Outer Limits or Tales from the Crypt.
  • With very few aversions, Rescue 911 focused on emergencies that ended up with the person in danger surviving and continuing to live a normal life (although not always in one piece), as well as victims of massive disasters that also survived the destruction.

    Real Life 
  • Abraham Wald famously applied this trope during World War II. A research group tasked with improving planes' armor analyzed the bullet holes after successful missions and suggested adding armor to the places they most often appeared. But Wald pointed out that, since all the planes they were looking at had survived their mission, their damage would appear most often in places that didn't need armor, and the correct action would be to add armor to places these planes were not damaged.
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