Not Just Survivorship Bias

VK points out, quite correctly, that survivorship bias doesn’t completely explain our perception that things are getting worse. He is right. There are many other reasons; some have to do with perception and some with reality.

Actually, in the first place, I don’t just find the idea that home appliances have gotten worse incorrect – I find it incredible. From my point of view, it is so obvious that things have been  better in the past 15 years than they were in the 15 years before that, that I question the honesty of those who claim otherwise.

I remember visiting my grandparents’ place when I was a child, and admiring the teak furniture there. They were praising furniture built during British times and comparing them with the junk that was being produced then. I didn’t know of survivorship bias at that time, so I remember comparing the furniture at my grandpa’s place with the plywood stuff that was at my place and concluding that they were right. I look at the furniture on offer now and I don’t feel the same. I’d prefer the furniture available now to virtually anything that was produced in the past. Even if I were to prefer the look of the furniture of British times for its antique value, I would get those antique pieces freshly made.

Of course, there is a reason for the drastic difference in perceptions. My standard of living improved dramatically since childhood. It isn’t surprising that the things I can afford now are of much better quality. But then, it is also true that the poorest quality stuff available now is much better than the poorest quality stuff available then.

Consider this scenario:  Manufacturers start improving the quality of the home appliances targeted at the lower middle class. To begin with, quality of those appliances is much worse than what the upper middle would find acceptable.  But those appliances see a steady improvement in quality without a proportionate increase in price. At some point the upper middle class person finds that the difference in quality is small enough that the large difference in price more than compensates for it. So, the product targeted at the mass segment ends up cannibalizing some part of the market targeted at the rich. So, you may find that you are using a product that is actually worse than the one your dad was using, but then, you are paying much less for it in real terms.

That is one reason why you may find a real difference in quality.  There are other reasons too, one of which VK has mentioned – manufacturers may have put in too many features, causing a decline in reliability. 

Another reason could be that manufacturers could have been using imported parts earlier and are now replacing them with Indian made components to reduce costs. It usually takes some time before Indian vendors gain parity in quality.

Or it could be the other way round. Manufacturers could be importing foreign components and parts, and often they aren’t designed for Indian conditions, so they fail.

One common sub-set of this is when you find that components have been designed to fail completely so that you just throw them away and replace them with new ones, unlike in India where you fix broken components with duct tape.  This causes a catastrophic failure that stays on your mind in a way that the minor failures that you fixed with duct tape don’t, especially after all those years.  

The important point to note with all these perceived or real failures is that they are all caused by actual progress – either in quality, cost or features.

One thought on “Not Just Survivorship Bias

  1. Well summed-up in that last line.
    An example to illustrate the bit about change in perception: Computers have been getting faster (at a fixed price point) and/or cheaper (at a fixed performance metric). However, my satisfaction level with my computers has remained more or less constant. Computing tasks (okay, FPS games) expand to fill up available memory (variation of Murphy’s Law).

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