The Air Force had a big problem.
At the height of WW2, planes were returning to base riddled with bullet holes. So the military decided it needed better ways to protect the planes and the crew.
The holes were concentrated around the tail, body, and wings, so they set forth to reinforce these areas.
That is until Abraham Wald, a statistician, saw they were only looking at the damage on planes that made it back to base and not considering those that didn’t.
Wald proposed bolstering armor wherever the returning planes did NOT suffer damage.
Planes hit in these spots, mainly the cockpit and engines, didn’t make it back home for repair, therefore these were the critical areas to reinforce.
This classic story is an example of Survivorship bias, a cognitive bias that occurs when decisions are made based on past successes while ignoring past failures.
According to Anders Noren, it’s pervasive in the fitness industry.
Coaches use past successes as proof their training advice is solid without questioning if a more moderate path would’ve yielded similar or even greater success.
“They model their advice around what they see working best for a handful of outliers,” he says.
In their minds willpower is the limiting factor, and any failures rest with the CLIENT, not their training protocol.
Those with the genetics, motivation, free time and “resources” to survive the training & diet get results, adding to the list of attention-grabbing success stories.
As for the rest? They flame out, disappear, and are unceremoniously replaced.
The fitness success stories we see are from the successful few, the lucky or gifted survivors who made it back to base.
But it ignores the many who quietly fell off the radar and crashed into oblivion.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s inspiring to see what’s achievable with hard work & discipline.
But if other key factors are unaccounted for, is it an honest message?
And if the many that failed to complete the mission aren’t acknowledged, is it helpful?
Rather than focus on why the few succeed, let’s start figuring out why the majority fail.
Once the fitness industry addresses its failures, then it can finally stop leaving people behind.