Survivorship Bias and the Brain

Earlier in the year I came across an io9 article around 15 science fiction and fantasy novels that were rejected by publishers. The implication, of course, is what fools those publishers were – look at how many sales these books got and how how popular they remain today. Some of the books included The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, Animal Farm by George Orwell, Carrie by Stephen King, and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J,K. Rowling. It’s a fun tale to tell ourselves. Look at all studios that could have made billions if they hadn’t passed on an aspiring writer with a little movie called Star Wars. But we’re just being tainted by Survivorship bias

…it’s a major flaw in the way we think about the arts, a domain where, by definition, only stars rise to the level of most of our attention.

Writes Toby Buckell in an article about electronic book publishing. There are lots of books that were amazing and didn’t ever get published so we don’t know about them. And there are an even greater number of books that are published and fizzle out. We’re a fickle bunch when it comes to what we find entertaining. The publishers are doing their best and we’re just forgetting all the awful books they did publish.

And for a long article that really delves into this, click here. Here’s an excerpt:

Similarly, photographer Mike Johnston explains on his blog that the artwork that leaps from memory when someone mentions a decade like the 1920s or a movement like Baroque is usually made up of things that do not suck. Your sense of a past era tends to be informed by paintings and literature and drama that are not crap, even though at any given moment pop culture is filled with more crap than masterpieces. Why? It isn’t because people were better artists back in the day. It is because the good stuff survives, and the bad stuff is forgotten. So over time, you end up with skewed ideas of past eras. You think the artists of antiquity were amazing in the same way you associate the music of past decades with the songs that survived long enough to get into your ears. The movies about Vietnam never seem include in their soundtracks the songs that sucked.