Sunday, June 24, 2018

That Tricky Survivorship Bias and Recovery

Just a reminder that the purpose of this discussion aims at stimulating thought and self awareness as tools to help those in recovery from trauma learn how to make safer choices. To make the discussion a bit lighter, we've defined Cognitive Biases as “CranioRectal Inversions” (CRI).

This bias fascinates me because it has a direct impact on how many approach recovery from post cult trauma syndrome, as I believe that people make this common error in their assumptions. It is one of the many attribution biases – wrong assumptions due to informal logical errors that are often based on too little information and consideration of the wrong perspective on that information.

For a period of time during World War II, the likelihood of a person returning home alive after serving in any capacity on a bomber plane was no better than flipping a coin. To improve the survival odds, the military focused on the planes that returned from battle. They noted that there was more heavy damage sustained in certain areas of the planes, and it seemed sensible to many that the planes should be reinforced in those areas that were most heavily hit.

Not so! A statistician named Abraham Wald came to the rescue of the Army Air Force by saving them from falling into the error of the survivorship bias. If you want improve the survival odds that bomber crews, does it make sense to focus on the opposite population? It wasn't that the information gathered from the planes that survived had no value. That information just failed to elucidate what was happening to the planes that didn't make it. The areas of the surviving planes that were damaged were not the weakest areas of the planes. They were, in fact, the strongest ones. The planes that were lost weren't in the air long enough to sustain – and survive – their opposition.

Here is one author's summary:
Simply put, survivorship bias is your tendency to focus on survivors instead of whatever you would call a non-survivor depending on the situation. Sometimes that means you tend to focus on the living instead of the dead, or on winners instead of losers, or on successes instead of failures.

Who is Representative of the Spiritually Abused?

What does this have to do with people who are recovering from cults or trauma from spiritual abuse? Well, for one, not everyone makes it through.

I was told by a therapist that Second Generation Adults (SGAs) who sought help when they left a cult were amazingly resilient. SGAs are those adults who are raised in a restrictive group or in a high demand home) We were told that this resilience developed in us because we were raised in our respective groups. It felt good to be honored and encouraged, but if that were the case, why do I feel like “I'm never going to get there”?

Whether you joined a group as an adult or whether your parents made that choice for you, if you actually show up at a meeting or a conference for people who are in recovery from cults, abusive religion, or even an abusive relationship, you're not representative of all of those who are and were members. Many people leave their group, and they either lay blame on the leader or some “bad apples” in their group. That isn't so personally threatening. But the number of people who realize how much the experience changed the way they think and the way that they relate to others drop off sharply from there. “No one joins a cult,” and no one takes any pleasure in considering that they were duped by one.

I've tried many times to organize recovery sessions with psycho education about cults and trauma for people who contact me requesting help for themselves, loved ones, and other former members. I'll spend time finding resources and people who are willing to help, but most of the time, only one or two people will commit to participate. Showing up requires some acceptance of the idea on the part the attendee that they were in a cult. More often than not, people will join a similar church that isn't quite so abusive but uses the same dynamics. Without knowledge of just what made the group abusive, they never really transcend the problem and end up repeating what they know and saw modeled in their group.

Cream of the Crop?

I once had a therapist what brought me though the things I've been through, because some of them were horrible. I know that I'm stubborn, and my die hard optimism does sometimes come with a silver lining, even though there are better ways of coping. Maybe those weaknesses of mine saw me through just as much or more so than my strengths? At the time, I felt anything but resilient. I used the word “brittle” to describe how I felt, and every challenge felt like a crushing hammer. I felt like spun glass that would turn into shards of abrasive powder – all tiny pieces that I could never repair. I sought help because I'd lost flexibility and the ability to adapt.

People who study thought reform will never have access to those who suffer in cults, and those who walk away from cults differ from those who get thrown out by and shunned by their group. Of those who walk away, only a small number of those people will seek out information about what they've been through, and of those, only a limited number of people will entertain the unpleasant idea that they were in a cult. If you're reading this, you are a subculture and a smaller part of all of the people who get involved with cults. The woman who designated herself as my mentor in my cults of record have all died – all while still members of the groups that I abandoned because I loved the truth more than I feared the unpleasantness of admitting that I had been used up and thrown away.

What do we know of the people who don't survive or don't make it out? I know of people who committed suicide. I know more people who refused proper treatment to manage their physical diseases in favor of faith healing. I know of many who buried their head in the sands of ignorance. While the military may have had access to the wreckage of bomber planes, those of us who hope to stem or stop cultic abuse will often never get the opportunity to learn in depth of those who didn't make it. And because of the threats made by abusive groups, most people who do break free don't speak about what happened because of the threats leveled at them when they left.

They're Lucky and I'm Not

The Survivorship Bias can also manifest as the attribution error which limits risk and increases a person's rigidity. Those people tend to approach a topic with such a narrow view that they are not receptive to the suggestion that success might be random or related to something else that is seemingly unrelated. They don't cherry pick information to arrive at the conclusion that benefits them the most, but their narrow vision causes the neglect of other obscure factors.

I used to know someone who gambled regularly and spoke about his 'system' of winning. They will study others who they believe are successful at gambling, but when they try the same strategies, they find that they fail. The idea that the winner is just very lucky and they are not becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Because of their stress and focus on winning instead of being more relaxed and resilient, they are more likely to have the confidence to take risks. It's an easy way of explaining away the discomfort of the powerlessness we feel amidst a world that is full of uncertainty, becoming a defense mechanism that helps create a sense of safe resignation.

To win, it can be at least as beneficial to learn from someone's mistakes or from your own as a way of developing a wiser sense of winning. Your chances of success increase because you've learned strategies that help you better identify pitfalls that lead to failure. On the surface and from a distance, it appears as if some people always win and others always lose. The truth is that winners don't talk much about their losses, and those who don't ever win don't seem to be that interesting. “Follow the leader” seems to make more sense than heeding those who seemingly failed. To transcend this, one needs only to reframe failure. By losing and walking away from gambling, the unsuccessful aspiring gambler wins by no longer putting themselves at so great a risk. They found the cure to their disease of losing money.

I also like this author's description:
Survivorship bias also flash-freezes your brain into a state of ignorance from which you believe success is more common than it truly is and therefore you leap to the conclusion that it also must be easier to obtain. You develop a completely inaccurate assessment of reality thanks to a prejudice that grants the tiny number of survivors the privilege of representing the much larger group to which they originally belonged.

Again, we are reminded that all that glitters isn't gold, and in so doing, we may overlook vital information that may serve us far better than the glitzy stuff.

Pyrite specimen

For Further Reading: