History, According to the Victors

A discussion of the things we can learn from the victorious, and the things we cannot.

The nicest part of the offseason in fantasy football is that it gives us all a chance to step back, breathe, and often write about the projects that were too intricate, too detailed, or too time consuming to do during the season. Or, occasionally, the ideas that were just too bizarre or offered far too little immediate value. Like this one.

The difference between in-season and out-of-season is that the average person reading a fantasy football article in October loves fantasy football, but the average person reading a fantasy football article in February loves fantasy football. They love it enough to entertain some crazy notions. Such as what kind of fantasy football lessons we can take away from the ‘90s cult classic sci-fi film “Cube”.

No, wait, stay with me.

The movie Cube, for those unfamiliar, deals with a relatively simple premise. Six strangers meet inside of a cube-shaped room. In each of the six surfaces is a hatch that leads to another cube-shaped room, with each room identical in every way except for color and coordinates, the series of numbers etched into the wall by the hatch. All of these cube-shaped rooms are arranged in a 26x26x26 array, giving space for 17,576 total rooms. Some unknown amount of that space, however, is empty, leaving gaps so that the rooms can shift and rearrange themselves periodically.

Some of these rooms are completely harmless. Others are equipped with motion sensors, pressure sensors, heat sensors, or sound sensors that, when triggered, activate a series of deadly booby traps. The six strangers stumble throughout the maze looking for an exit, losing various members along the way, until finally the sole remaining survivor reaches the end.

Now, imagine you knew that you were fated to end up inside the Cube at some point in the future, and you wanted to try your best to chart a safe course through. You could sit at the exit to the cube and survey everyone who escaped, asking them which rooms were safe, which rooms were trapped, and what the nature of those triggers and traps might have been. Given enough time, (and a large enough supply of people randomly placed within the Cube), you could get a pretty detailed picture of its inner workings.

If you kept detailed notes, you might even believe you have managed to pinpoint which is the single most deadly room in the entire structure. You might discover that when groups entered room 625 169 499, they lost, on average, a staggering 80% of their number, marking it as far and away the deadliest room in your notes.

The problem, however, is that room 625 169 499 is almost certainly not the deadliest room in the Cube. You see, while at least 80% of people who entered it died, that also means that 20% of people who entered it survived. In fact, every single room you have notes on is demonstrably survivable, simply because you have notes on it, and all of your notes come from people who we already know survived the Cube.

The really dangerous rooms, the rooms you should absolutely avoid at all costs, are the rooms for which you have no notes at all. Nobody who entered those rooms exited the Cube to tell their tale. In short, by forming a picture based solely on the experience of survivors, you are ignoring wholesale the existence and experience of those who did not survive. Such a picture is, necessarily, incomplete. This is the essence of a real-world phenomenon called “survivorship bias”.

This is just a silly little thought experiment based on a low-budget Canadian horror film from nearly 20 years ago, but there are plenty of real-world examples, too. For instance, during WWII, air force officials were planning on reinforcing their bombers with extra armor plating. They commissioned a study of all returning bombers and intended to place additional plating where the bullet holes were most common.

A mathematician named Abraham Wald pointed out their error. If a bomber returned with 500 bullet holes in the wing, all that proved was that the bomber could survive being shot in the wing 500 times. If a bomber returned without any holes in the tail, that doesn’t mean bombers weren’t getting shot in the tail, it meant that the bombers getting shot in the tail weren’t making it home. In short, the extra armor plating should be placed where bullet holes were least common, not most.

Survivorship bias is also the root of a classic betting scam. In it, a man promises he can predict the outcome of games with perfect accuracy, and offers to give away a free prediction to prove it. A million people take him up on his offer, and he tells half of them to bet one side, and the other half to bet the other side.

A week later, the half who received the losing pick figures he’s a fraud and moves on, while the half-million people who received a winning pick are intrigued. So the man offers another free prediction. Again, he tells half of the remaining half-million bettors to take one side, and the other half to take the other.

The next week, a quarter-million bettors have received two consecutive good picks, so they come back for a third prediction. And again, the man splits the group. The next week, 125,000 people return, and he again splits the group. The next week, the group is just 62,500. The next week, he’s down to 31,250 bettors. The week after, he’s at 15,625.

From the perspective of the group as a whole, it’s obvious that this man is a quack. He’s just giving out random picks, and his hit rate is a perfectly random 50%. But if we only look at things from the perspective of the 15,625 “survivors”, the man is a gambling savant. After all, he’d just given away six consecutive picks, totally for free, and he’d been right on the money with all six of them. So in the seventh week, when the man says “I’ve got to make a living, you know”, and starts charging $100 for that week’s prediction, many of the 15,625 are glad to pay it.

If he continues his system, then by the end of the 17-week regular season, he’d still have 7 of his original million who had received the correct pick every single week. Imagine yourself in their shoes, having received 17 straight “lock of the week” picks from a man, and having all 17 work out. How much would you be willing to pay for him to give you all of his picks for the entire playoffs?

This tendency to draw conclusions from an entire group based only on the survivors doesn’t just influence movies, war, and betting. It influences every aspect of our life. We deposit our money in banks that survived crashes and invest our money in institutions that survived downturns. We take marriage advice from the happily-married and parenting advice from those whose children turned out well. We look to successful entrepreneurs to gain insight into innovation, and successful CEOs for ideas on organizing a business. We learn about achieving work-life balance from those who have managed to balance their work and their life. Which all sounds fantastic in theory— who wants to get parenting advice from someone who is a lousy parent?— but which all conspire to leave us with a very distorted picture of banking, of investing, of marriage, of child-rearing, of innovating, or organizing, of balancing.

And also of fantasy football. Because as the offseason appears, our first instinct is to conduct a post-mortem on the season that was. And our first instinct for that post-mortem is often to study the victors searching for commonalities that we can exploit and learn from. “Winners tended to draft running backs early, winners tended to be active on the waiver wire”, and so on and so forth.

That’s awesome. That’s valuable. Sitting at the exit of the Cube and interviewing survivors is a valuable activity for someone who will be entering the Cube during the next fantasy football season. It helps paint a picture of success, filling in the color and the shape before our eyes. But if we stop there, the picture is not complete.

To get a complete picture of success, we also need to survey the failures. We need to add shadow and a sense of depth. Author David McRaney once wrote that “… success boils down to serially avoiding catastrophic failure while routinely absorbing manageable damage.” It’s a beautiful idea, and one that quickly draws attention to the insidious failure of survivorship bias.

Survivors can teach us how to survive manageable damage, but only failures can show us the limits where manageable damage ceases to be.

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