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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.

Sub-Trope to the Anthropic Principle — the idea that certain elements of a story have to be the way they are or there would be no story worth telling. Super-Trope to Protagonist-Centered Morality. Sister Trope to "Shaggy Dog" Story. 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:

  • 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: The idealists emphasize finding your own noble destiny in America, while the cynics claim that your life won't improve at all. Successes tend to be counted in favor of it, and failures ignored.
  • Blaming the Victim: If life doesn't go your way, it's your fault because you didn't work hard enough/lacked drive or willpower/used drugs or alcohol/had premarital sex/whatever.
  • Final Girl: Everyone else is dead, but her survival is still the only concern on the audience's mind.
  • Final Solution: Works about The Holocaust tend to focus on survivors (Schindler's List, The Pianist) rather than those who actually died in ghettos or camps.
  • Hard Work Fallacy: If you work hard, you will succeed, no matter what may be working against you. If you don't succeed, it's only because you didn't work hard enough.
  • 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) a Mentor Archetype 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.
  • 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. This relies upon counting the people who are possibly improved through adversity (or at least rise above it) rather than the opposite.
  • Nominal Importance: Characters which are important to the plot will be given a name and followed around. Those who are not 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.
  • 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:

  • Apocalyptic Log: 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.
  • 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.
  • High Hopes, Zero Talent: One reason why someone might fail to achieve success is because they have the dream, but not the skills to make it come true.
  • 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).


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  • 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 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).
  • An overwhelming majority of films about The Holocaust feature this, focusing on Jews who survived, rather than the six million who were gassed or shot or starved to death.
    • 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.
    • 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.
  • 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 enormous tragedy around them is not downplayed, the focus is on their survival and the people who ended up rescuing them.

  • Averted in Nineteen Eighty-Four, where the protagonist ends up being just another would-be rebel who's brainwashed back into a model citizen (so he can't even be a Doomed Moral Victor) and quietly terminated. It's left up in the air if there was even a rebellion for him to join.
  • The Little Match Girl is an aversion of the Rags to Riches variant. It's about a poor girl who tries to make money selling matches in the middle of winter, and ends up freezing to death.
  • Discworld:
    • The Fifth Elephant: Discussed in universe with Carrot saying that there had never been a documented wolf attack on people out in the wilds, and Gaspode replies that just means that all the people who did get attacked by wolves just never made it back to tell anyone. They both agree that that isn't very comforting, especially with all the wolf howls around.
    • Small Gods recalls the prophecy of a god's high priest that this god's followers would defeat a rival religion and feast in it's temple. This prophecy came true and actually was made in advance. Only five minutes in advance, while the high priest and his mob of followers were right outside the temple, but still.

    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.
  • Discussed on Adam Ruins Everything, when a young man decides he doesn't really need college, since he can just drop out and become a successful entrepreneur like Bill Gates. Adam points out that success stories like that are a rarity, and that only 1% of jobs are given to people without at least a bachelor's degree. He further explains that Bill Gates already had several advantages that most people do not (and don't mention when discussing his success). Namely, he came from a wealthy family, who could afford to send him to a prestigious prep school, which had access to a then-state-of-the-art computer that most schools (and homes) did not. He had classes on how to use and create programs for that computer, so he already had lots of experience with computer programming (again, something that not a lot of people had back in the early 80's). And, while it's true that he didn't complete his bachelor's degree, he also never officially dropped out of school. (Just took an extended break.) Even if he had, he'd still be able to go back on his wealthy (and supportive) parents' dime if his business plans hadn't worked out the way they did.

    Real Life 
  • Abraham Wald famously applied this trope during World War II. He was part of a research group tasked with improving planes' armor by analyzing the location of bullet holes in planes returning from missions. The group suggested adding armor to the places they most often appeared. Wald objected, pointing 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 the areas without bullet holes.
    • On the topic of WW2 is the myth about the American Sherman tank being a "death trap". Statistics show that it had an excellent survival rate of around 96%, in large part due to large and well-located spring-loaded hatches allowing the crew to bail out of the tank quickly. This is specifically where myths such as "Shermans being easily destroyed" or "Shermans catching fire easily" come from, the crew got out to talk about it.
  • There have been some real life stories of people stuck in the ocean being pushed to safety by a Friendly, Playful Dolphin. However, we don't know if the dolphin was trying to save them or (more likely) just being playful, as anyone who got pushed further OUT to sea by dolphins drowned and can't tell us.
  • It's unfortunately common for poor people who become rich and famous to assume anyone can do it, and completely overlook the (much more likely) explanation that they either got lucky, or had some rare knack for something that the vast majority of people don't have. This can sometimes goes from simply fallacious to downright reprehensible, as such people sometimes assume anyone who's poor or otherwise having a hard time is just lazy and doesn't deserve any sympathy.
  • Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg all dropped out of college and founded trillion-dollar tech companies in their twenties, though when looking at the bigger picture, more than 95% of founders of successful startups are college graduates, with the majority holding advanced degrees, and the success rate of startups increases dramatically with age.