Diagram of a WWI-era military plane with red dots marking the approximate location of bullet holes, representing the damage sustained by planes that returned to base after missions.

Brief: Survivorship Bias and it's Application to Social Justice

What it really means when you say "not all ____": you're looking at the people who survived. The people who weren't wounded, traumatized, or straight up killed, but that's not what needs to be addressed. 

This applies to "not all men." 
This applies to "not all cops."
This applies to "not all white people."
This applies to inspiration porn and the supercrip stereotype.
This. Applies. To. Social Justice. 

If you feel the words "not all ___" start to come out of your mouth, be aware that you're about to use a logical fallacy to support your argument. That means you're wrong, and you need to go back and rethink your conclusion. 

Here’s the (less brief) explanation:

That image above, of the WW2-era plane with the red dots, is a representation of where the bullet holes were on the planes that went to combat and returned to base. The ones that were shot, but not shot down.

Some top generals looked at that bullet pattern and thought, ‘that’s where all the planes are getting hit – we need to reinforce those areas.’ Luckily for them, someone else was there to point out that the bullet pattern was showing them where the planes could survive getting hit. (To be specific, this was pointed out by mathematician Abraham Wald, a Jewish Hungarian refugee who was, at the time, working at Columbia University.) He also pointed out that the planes that made it back had not been hit in some pretty important areas, especially the cockpit and the engines, and he recommended reinforcing those areas, instead.

I’m talking about Abraham Wald’s observation here because it’s an easy-to-see example of how survivorship bias can cloud our vision. When we talk about the people who survive, or who are not permanently injured physically or mentally by experiences that do kill or maim so many more people – we’re engaging in survivorship bias. When we talk more about the people who overcome incredible odds to succeed in life, and use that to justify ignoring or even degrading the people who are not lucky enough to overcome those odds – we’re engaging in survivorship bias.

One Black child surviving an encounter with police does not negate the -how many thousands- of Black lives ended prematurely by police force. It does not negate the systemic racism of policing in the US, nor does it negate the need to overhaul how this nation is policed (among other things).

One person escaping a rapist does not negate the need to combat toxic masculinity and all the micro- and overt- aggressions that come from it, or the structural application of toxic masculinity in our culture.

One disabled person overcoming traditional limitations associated with their disability does not negate the need for us to combat ablism in our culture. Nor does it negate the struggles that many more disabled folks face.

Extraordinary stories of overcoming hardship, of compassionate police, of public rejections of toxic masculinity… these stories are extraordinary because they are exceptions to the rule. And that in itself is a sign that these things are all problems we need to solve. They’re not just ‘expected life hurdles that everyone is challenged by’ or that an individual can be expected to overcome through sheer effort.

Yeah, it’s great that some people survive. But that’s not the point.


Credit where due:

Image by Martin Grandjean (vector), McGeddon (picture), Cameron Moll (concept) - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=102017718



Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.