Monday, September 23, 2019

Survival Bias, Supermodels, and Worldly Algorithms

Does everyone's worldly existence unfold according to the same rules and probabilities? The question has consumed me since childhood. If disliked people turned kindly, would they be admired? If self-destructive people took better care of themselves, would their lives be smooth? Is the world, in other words, a clean algorithm where input determines output, or do some of us experience irrevocably different results (above/beyond chance and initial circumstance)?

I once read an interview with a supermodel who claimed that her beauty stems from her inner self. She thinks positively; she cares for herself and treats other people right; she does yoga. And, voila: heart-stopping beauty. Anyone can be beautiful, she insisted, but it was easy to recognize the real message behind the platitude: the problem with the rest of us isn't genetic, it's that we're simply not doing life right. And she's not just lucky, she's better, generally. Daffy though it sounds, this is a natural conclusion from the widely-held assumption that we all share a constant input/output formula.

It's not just about beauty. There's a survival bias that makes people who've succeeded in any particular realm assume they deserve credit - and, more generally, done life correctly. You must, of course, ignore mountains of evidence: people with immense inner beauty who look like hell; people with super-smart ideas that failed; people who prayed/believed and were kicked in the ass; people with impeccable courtesy and empathy who spent their lives being sneered at; people who dieted, exercised, and thought positively and got cancer.

If the rules were constant, that would mean recluses, for example, are failures for not having done better. They clearly missed the normal marks normal people hit to get normal worldly results. If they'd adjusted their input, the output would have been more pleasing. They had the same potential as anyone, but failed to make it happen.

At this age, having known a huge swathe of people - from movie stars to crackheads, angels to murderers - and having been, myself, at least a half dozen people, plying diverse careers amid diverse circles - I can state with certainty that it's absolutely not the same for everyone. So those who've been trounced do not necessarily have no one but themselves to blame. Recluses aren't always hapless failures, and their choice might even make sense. One can't possibly understand their experience by projecting one's own. The results of identical effort vary very widely.

1. That was my first use of the word "irrevocably" in ten years of slogging. High five.

2. This was absolutely not a political treatise. I'm no kind of Marxist; I find it condescending and morally perilous in nearly all cases to lower standards for "those poor dears who simply can't keep up." That wasn't my point at all. I confess, however, that this sort of observation led me to give up Libertarianism - the favored philosophy of the smugly successful and the ultimate projection of survival bias.

3. Successful people who smugly assume they "made it happen" not only ignore the multitudinous unrewarded virtue and unrecognized talent out there. They also ignore their own copious flaws and blocks and issues. Each and every one of them, had they failed, would be ripe and abundant pickings for explaining why.

1 comment:

Display Name said...

Lots to think about here Jim. I've had two cars totalled in the past fifteen years. My brave girl daschund was in both crashes. The first time I was coming very slowly up to a red light when a gigantic black truck rear ending me and sent my dog flying to the floor. The second time someone blew through a red light and t boned me. Cdc just happened to be holding said doggie very securely. He told me afterwards he was just practicing how to hold her. She would have gone flying and not survived if he hadn't been doing that most likely Each time no one was hurt although I was stunned for a less than a minute the second time. We've been very lucky. But Cdc wrote about the second, much more expensive car being totalled on a forum and someone proudly told him I've been driving 47 years and Never had an accident. The smugness was palpable. I also blame fairy tales. Even when I was very young I noticed that the good people were beautiful to look at. The youngest daughter is always the fairest. The ugly people were evil. I was a cute little girl but I was like wtf? Prolly not my exact thoughts.

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