Survivorship Bias


Similar, to my earlier blog Misconceptions: Swim, to have a swimmer’s body! this blog talks about the perils of the pervasive cognitive flaw – survivorship bias.

Exercise programs that you frequently read on fitness magazines and social media platforms almost always depict a famous athlete giving his/her workout routine and telling you should follow it too if you want to get a big chest, skinny waistline, broad shoulders, slender legs, 6-pack abs, etc…

ronaldo's workout

Depending on the actual workout routine being recommended, the results of you following those programs can range from giving you a pleasant little distraction from your previous workout program to the worst case, leaving you injured!

Definition of Survivorship Bias:

Concentrating on the people or things that “survived” some process and inadvertently overlooking those that didn’t because of their lack of visibility.

In other words, athletes are not only genetically gifted in the sport that they play, but they have also gone through years of competition and won (survived) and has brought them to the point where they are now famous.

It is highly unlikely, the fitness program that they are endorsing on this month’s Men’s Fitness magazine is the source of their success!  It’s more likely, they are trying to get you to buy their latest fitness product with the promise of transforming your bodies to look more like theirs!

Michael Phelps workout

It is a very common cognitive mistake to attribute credit to that workout program or that special diet he or she is doing but that is a classic case of survivorship bias because there were probably thousands of other competitors doing the same type of exercises and diet and did not win or did not survive to become famous.  So if you were to review the performance of such a workout or diet over all the participants who did it, you may find that their effectiveness as a percentage could, in fact, be very, very low.

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Athletes especially, due to their genes, make them a terrible example to follow because their genome is so vastly different from the ordinary person.  In fact, calculations have shown that professional athletes’ physical capabilities exceed that of the average person by 17 standard deviations![1]

“I woke around 11am and decided to watch some TV and had some nuggets.” – Usain Bolt

So as long as you have a properly designed program that trains your entire body, and you’re tracking your progress, you are probably doing fine.  Don’t be fooled by the glitz and glamour of what popular athletes are doing, cause chances are, they are irrelevant to you anyways!


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1.  McGuff, Doug; Little, John (2009). Body By Science. pp. xii–xiii.

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