A view from Dave Trott: How biased are we?
A view from Dave Trott

How biased are we?

I’ve just read something interesting on Twitter.

It was a discussion about the difference between confirmation bias and survivorship bias.

There were several examples in the debate over which bias was which.

It began with the famous example of damaged WW2 airplanes.

The USAF were going to put extra armour around the damaged areas.

Abraham Wald said that was a mistake: the areas to armour were the undamaged areas, as the planes with damage to those areas obviously never made it back.

They debated if the misinterpretation was an example of survivorship or confirmation bias.

Next was the example of dolphins: many people who were drowning at sea reported dolphins pushing them back towards land.

This was interpreted as proof that dolphins were friendly, intelligent creatures.

But what if dolphins had pushed many more people in other directions simply because they liked playing?

These people would have drowned and so wouldn’t be included in the data.

Was the misinterpretation survivorship bias or confirmation bias?

There was the example of a company whose website wasn’t Linux or Mac friendly.

When asked why he didn’t make it accessible to those people, the manager said: “We don’t get many Mac or Linux users.”

As they say in America, no shit Sherlock.

Obviously he was a dope, but was it confirmation or survivorship bias?

Hurricane Maria was another example: FEMA had set up a website for people to apply online for aid or assistance.

Hardly anyone applied – did this mean no-one needed aid?

Or was it because the power grid and communications were down due to the hurricane?

Was that error confirmation bias or survivorship bias?

Another example was the shop owner who said there was no point building a wheelchair ramp for disabled access because no-one with a wheelchair ever came to his shop.

I don’t think you need to be a retailer to work out why.

But was he guilty of survivorship or confirmation bias?

They gave other examples, from signs that said “Stand up if you can’t speak English” to a university that argued its fees couldn’t be too expensive because all its students could afford to pay them.

Now at the end of this debate, I still don’t know which examples were survivorship bias and which were confirmation bias.

But I do know the discussion is indicative of the state of advertising.

We would rather spend all our time arguing the difference between obscure economic positions than just employ simple common sense.

Debating and defining is what we do best.

The people in those examples behaved stupidly, anyone with half a brain could see that.

But the criteria for advertising isn’t half a brain, it’s the ability to swap obscure theories.

Common sense is not required for a senior role in advertising, in fact it may be harmful.

COMMON sense gives the impression that anyone could have thought of it.

If anyone could have thought of it, it can’t be very valuable.

Consequently arcane, academic theory rules in advertising agencies.

The more impenetrable and esoteric the language, the cleverer it must be.

Personally, I’ve never been impressed with dull thinking and clever words.

I’m more impressed with clever thinking and dull words.

Dave Trott is the author of Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three

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