Survival Bias in Home Appliances

Dilip D’Souza documents his recent misfortunes in home appliances and implies, (but as is typical for him, never says) that the quality of appliances has declined since the glorious period of Nehruvian socialism. That reminds me of a Fark.com discussion thread I was hanging around in a couple of months back when the bridge collapsed in Minnesota. I can’t be bothered to find the thread right now, but here is what I remember.

Someone on the thread had brought up the example of Roman bridges. Why is it that bridges built by the Romans are still standing, while bridges built in modern times collapse within two decades?

An engineer had given the right answer. Engineering is an inexact science. It was inexact then and is inexact now. Our knowledge of the mathematics involved in planning for failure has vastly improved, but even the best maths can only statistically predict failure.

So the engineers of those times built their bridges based on their guesses for how much cement was required. Some of the estimates were too low. Those bridges collapsed soon and we don’t hear of them. The ones that were too high stood much after they were needed and they stand now. We mistakenly consider them a monument to engineering feats when we should really consider them monuments to waste.

This phenomenon of us remembering only what has survived and forgetting what does not has a name. It is called Survival Bias. The thing about home appliances is that the defective ones expose their problems quite early in their lives. They fail and they are replaced; and people tend to forget those. The ones that survive last long. People grow to love them, take them as representative of past generations and compare them with the defective ones that are failing right now.

And oh,what is true about home appliances is true about people too. “People in those days were so healthier!” is actually another way of saying “The unhealthy people in those days used to die.”

29 thoughts on “Survival Bias in Home Appliances

  1. Excellent point. It’s a common enough fallacy, and when extended, leads people to yearn for the “golden age” of the past. I’ve fallen victim to this bias myself, especially when struck by gadgets that fail on me just a few days after the warranty expires.

    I wonder if someone has tried to assess the cost of the long lasting products of yesteryears in real terms.

    Fine as this post is, Old Bill got there before you, and in much more style. For he said, “The evil that men do lives after them/The good is oft interr’d with their bones”

  2. I don’t think that survival bias explains this fully. In fact, in socialist times one would be more likely to remember product failures than in the current times. If there was a problem with an appliance in those times, getting a new one might involve a long wait as well as shaving off more savings from your already meagre income. The consumer’s emotional involvement in buying a TV, a scooter or a fridge was much higher then, than it is now for the same appliances because of increase in wealth and availability of choices. Today, if your computer fails, you will swear a bit and within a day buy a new one.

    I think it’s the increase in complexity of the appliances due to emerging technology that plays a role in the perception that newer products do not last long. Because of lack of innovation, the products were fairly basic in socialist times and their functionality was limited. Today, with almost every appliance involving embedded systems, vastly greater functionality than the earlier appliances of similar nature, more programming, the points of failure have increased. With increased competition in the technology arena there is more incentive to launch a new product with some innovation without worrying about testing it as much. You can always provide software patches later on or can launch a new model within six months learning from the mistakes of the old one as happens today in the cell phone market. Also, in a wealthy society we are more willing to tolerate (albeit still cribbing about them) such breakdowns. We prefer newer technology and more functionality or value for money in the new version of the appliances. We would have replaced a fully functioning appliance just for the sake of added functionality to keep up with the times or the neighbour or to match the colour of the curtains, anyways. So appliance failure today has just become irritating and is not considered a great financial liability.

  3. The complexity argument can go either way: increasing complexity leads to more points of failure, or that it should minimize failure.

    But your point about releasing buggy products out to the market is well made. What I think makes it ‘acceptable’ is the reduction of price in real terms. Not only are consumers getting richer, the goods itself are getting cheaper (thanks to Moore’s law, China, containerised shipping etc).

  4. wait on just a sec. you mean if my house has several fans bought in the 1960’s which lasted no probs all these years; and then two fail this year fourty yrs after buying; and i buy two brand new ones to replace them; and those two fail within three months of buying; and i think this is odd. you mean i cannot remrk on this without being guilty of SELECTION BIAS?!

    (this happend to me).

    and in addition, when i call in factory warranty person to repair the new fans and ask him; and he says “arre, new fans are not long-lasting like old ones”; and i mention to my family friends what he said. you mean i am again guilty of SELCTION BIAS?!

    (this happened also by the way).

  5. Ravi,

    I don’t know what is your policy, but this Shuvro is no barbarindian guy whose url he is using, but some troll I have encountered somewhere else also.

  6. By and large, I’ll trust my readers to figure these things out by themselves.

    Mr. Aikath’s skills at writing grammatically correct sentences seem to have deteriorated markedly since he graduated from NY Stern a couple of years back.

  7. typical ravikiran. never engages questions, only tosses off a snarky remark. check evry comment section on this blog since inception.

    gaurav, i am barbarindian. i finlly decided to use my real name instd of hiding behind barbarindian. i finaly got the guts to do it. you should encourage me.

  8. sorry forgot. you really falling back onto that last resort, make fun of other guys grammer? what more to say! i shud keep writign with grammer mistakes, just to see youre response.

    i also graduated from kgp. you??

  9. 1. His shaving brush was bought 15 years ago (1992) and the washing machine, 10 year ago (1997). Hardly the days of Nehruvian Socialism (not exactly 2007 either, but that’s besides the point). And that’s 2 out of the 3 personal examples he cited.

    2. What has Survivorship Bias got to do with a post that talks about certain specific, personal experiences and draws no generalizations? Yes, you admit that much when you talk about what Dilip “implies” rather than says. But that’s pure guesswork on your part about his motives.

    3. “The fact that it is Dilip DSouza doing the cribbing explains it a bit more.” Perhaps this comment explains a bit too. Honestly, I don’t get it. Your post is entirely well-reasoned and capable of standing on its own. Why do you need to bring in ad hominem stuff? Did you read his full post? He isn’t even cribbing.

    4. Before someone gets all ad hominem on me (I see that a troll is possibly here already), allow me to state that my last two (or may be three) interactions with Dilip have all ended in us agreeing to disagree after a lot of arguing.

    PS: If the two of you have a history, then only (1) of this comment stands. Consider the rest withdrawn, please. Bloggers sniping at each other is the kind of fun that I never discourage 🙂

  10. In reverse order:
    1) Who in the blogosphere does not have a history with Dilip D’Souza?

    2) Ad hominem is attacking the man instead of the ball, not attacking the man in addition to the ball. As you have pointed out that my post stands on its own, I deny the charge of ad hominem and accept the lesser charge of being mean to Dilip D’Souza.

    3) His post was supposedly about how India was not that terrible a dump in the old days. Why did he put those examples unless there was a conclusion to be drawn from them?

    4) Your point no. 1 should really be answered by Dilip, not by me.

    Also, I would like to reiterate that Survivorship bias (thanks for correcting the term) is not a moral failing, but a disease. Approximately 95% of the population suffer from at at some point in their lives. The rest suffer from excellent memories and unpleasant childhoods.

  11. > Who in the blogosphere does not have a history
    > with Dilip DSouza?

    take ones own example of failing applinces and generalize about them all. take your example of history and generalize to the whole blgosphere. whats the diffrence?

    what did you call it, survival bias? survivorship bias? i thank you.

  12. 4. My point no. 1 was in response to the first sentence of your post, where you drew an inference about Dilip’s motives. I might have stated the same to him if he had mentioned Nehruvian Socialism while talking about the appliances etc. But he didn’t. It was mentioned in Bhattacharya’s article that Dilip’s article was criticizing (and that bit is in an entirely different context).

    So, I had no choice but to put it to you. And my point was that your inference is probably wrong. Because if Dilip wanted to brainwash us into thinking of Nehruvian era as some sort of golden age, then he probably wouldn’t have mentioned the dates (I don’t think basic maths is a problem for him, an engineer AFAIK). In fact, he could just make up stuff (“my uncle bought a shaving brush in 1952 – the year Industrial Policy was laid down by Chacha Nehru, the dearest – and it served him well for 40 years, while the brush I purchased yesterday is in tatters”).

    Anyway, this is getting quite OT, so I’ll shut up now.

    PS: For some reason, the term is lodged in my mind as “Survival Bias” as well. I wrote it correctly because I was reading something a couple of days ago where the correct term was used. The ‘correction’ was unintended 🙂

  13. So are you saying that those examples had nothing to do with the point of his post?

    I grant that “glorious days of Nehruvian Socialism” was hyperbolic, but the point of his post was to prove that India was not exactly a dump in “those” days. The days in question are generally thought to have ended in 1991, so it is quite odd for him to provide examples from 1992 and 1997. Of course, all his posts are odd and I can’t expect you to speak for him, but whatever.

    Perhaps he meant to say that India had a capacity to produce decent shaving brushes, washing machines and switches during the Nehruvian era and the capacity has been worsening steadily since then. God only knows.

    In any case, my point was about Survivorship bias and it holds regardless of whether we are talking of the glory days of Nehruvian Socialism or of Raoian Liberalization.

  14. And I wish you wouldn’t talk of my drawing inferences about Dilip’s “motives”. It makes me sound like some conspiracy theorist. Accusing people of harbouring ulterior motives has justly got a bad rap, but speculating about how a part of a post fits with the theme of the whole post is not quite in the same league.

  15. No, no.. I wasn’t trying to imply a conspiracy theory etc. As much as I might enjoy seeing two bloggers trading flames, I am hardly the person to fan such fires 🙂

    Frankly, I didn’t worry much about how the first few paras of his post fit with the HT article – because they didn’t. The post says that he was reminded of the old HT article because of an incident, which reminded him of something else, and then yet another thing. Kind of an attempt at humour, perhaps.

    We both agree that those examples don’t really support his HT article, so may be there wasn’t much of a point. Like you mentioning Dilip and Fark in this post – just background. Not really substantive as far as the meat of the post is concerned.

    My guilt at spawning an OT thread (and keeping it going) is at a record high now. Addictive, once you get sucked into it.

  16. Vivek: two words — plausible deniability.
    Parsing Dilip’s words with logical atomism is playing into his game of plausible deniability. Look at even his byline — “I’m not leftist, I’m not rightist, I’m a typist”. He even wants to plausibly deny that he is a leftist.

    He wants to have his cake and eat it too; or maybe not, for all we know he’s not a cake-ist.

  17. “The unhealthy people in those days used to die.”

    So did the healthy people. Dont tell me you did not notice?

    We “remember” only the standing Roman bridges because, you see, they are still standing. Dont tell me you did not notice? Likewise, we “remember” the modern ones that have fallen because they usually cause catastrophes when they fall. You did not notice that too?

    This is the same blogger advertised to me as “sharp” and “the most logical blogger” and so on so on? And he comes up with this triviality?

    Its my first visit here, and I gratefully make it my last.

  18. He had to kill so many to get the job done. But, for instance, US (read US Presidents) killed few in African/South American states because they needed to kill only so much (only so much were available!). Shouldn’t you factor in China’s population too, in your verdict?

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