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Thinking about thinking: Occam’s Razor and survivorship bias


The second in a series of articles where Whitianga resident, Max Ross, is exploring the way we think.

I love thinking about thinking and enjoy looking at where my thinking goes wrong and how I can do things that are not logical. Thinking about thinking is called metacognition. Philosophers, economists, scientists and more have all investigated how we think and how we make logical mistakes.

Occam’s Razor

A philosophical razor is a rule of thumb that helps us to think about things in a useful way. The razor allows us to shave off possibilities or ways of thinking that are not useful. The most well-known is Occam’s Razor which states “of two competing theories, the simpler explanation of an entity is to be preferred”. I think of it as “prefer the simplest solution”.

If you have texted someone and they haven’t replied in many hours, there are two possible reasons: they are out of coverage or they are harbouring a deep-seated grudge against you. Occam’s razor tells us the simplest is most probably correct, they are out of coverage.

Occam’s razor is not an absolute rule, it does not guarantee that the simplest possibility is the correct one, it merely suggests that this is where you should spend most of your time or effort.

This razor is named after William of Occam, a Fransiscan friar of the 14th century. The idea behind the razor was around before William, and similar statements go right back to the ancient Greeks. Ptolemy stated, “We consider it a good principle to explain the phenomena by the simplest hypothesis possible.”

Survivorship bias

A bias is a way in which humans think irrationally about a situation. We all have them and many of them can be seen in social or economic experiments. Understanding biases can help us avoid falling into them.

A classic bias is the survivorship bias where we concentrate on those who made it past a certain selection and ignore all those who did not. It can also lead to the false belief that those who are successful have some special quality, rather than that they are successful by luck or coincidence.

A classic example of survivorship bias is the idea that it worked for me, so it must be the best way. The school system worked for me and I was successful, so it must be the best system. Looking at the survivors of the system and not the failures leads to this incorrect way of thinking.

It’s easy to buy a house, we just worked hard and didn’t waste our money is another classic example of survivorship bias. Because you were lucky enough to buy a house doesn’t mean you bought that house because you worked harder or saved better. Maybe you had the help of your family with the deposit or houses compared to income were much cheaper back when you purchased your house.

Survivorship bias is particularly dangerous as the survivors often tend to be those in power who set up the systems for moving forward. The wealthy and the educated help decide on the future financial and educational systems.


Pictured is Max Ross.

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