Menus Subscribe Search

But It's Just a Game

hot-hands

(Photo: Brocreative/Shutterstock)

Stop Denying the Hot Hand

• February 27, 2014 • 4:00 AM

(Photo: Brocreative/Shutterstock)

New data and statistical theory are overturning 30-year-old research that failed to find evidence of streaky shooting on the basketball court. The hot hand, it turns out, really does exist—and it may apply to a lot more than just sports.

The San Antonio Spurs’ Danny Green broke the record for three-pointers in the NBA Finals last June, making 25 of his 38 attempts in the first five games against the Miami Heat. If you hadn’t heard of Green before, you were not alone—he’s a solid player, but no all-star. The record-setting five shots per game was more than twice his regular season average. To essentially all basketball fans and analysts, it was obvious that Green was “hot”—performing at a much higher level than his norm.

And yet, Economics Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman says “the `hot hand’ is just a figment of the imagination.” This claim has become part of the conventional wisdom in behavioral economics. It is often used, by academics and talking heads alike, to provide a stark illustration of cognitive bias. New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote last year: “When a player has hit six shots in a row, we imagine that he has tapped into some elevated performance groove. In fact, it’s just random statistical noise, like having a coin flip come up tails repeatedly.” Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, who almost became the Fed Chairman, was quoted (also in a 2013 New York Times piece) saying, “The answer [to the question of whether players sometimes get hot] is no.”

The idea that there is no hot hand is based on a body of research, beginning with Amos Tversky (Kahneman’s long-time collaborator) and co-authors’ work in 1985, that failed to find evidence of streaky shooting in a wide range of settings: field goal shots taken during games, free throws in games, and shots taken outside of games. The claims are consistent with an even larger body of psychology research indicating that people, in general, often mistakenly see patterns in random data. Researchers came to a consensus that basketball “hotness” does not exist.

If success begets success in basketball, then why not also in other situations? This point, while speculative, could be relevant to a variety of policy questions.

This conclusion was largely ignored by fans and players. Red Auerbach, the great Boston Celtics coach, is reported to have said in response to the original research: “So he (Tversky) makes a study. Who cares?” The conclusion was at odds with decades of established basketball strategy. Bill Russell, the Celtics star who, under Auerbach, won 11 championships in his 13 seasons, said that one of the secrets to his teams’ success was identifying which player was hot and feeding him the ball.

Academics may have assumed this refusal to accept the research was due to a combination of ignorance and stubbornness. But recent work, including three peer-reviewed papers based on our own research and a new paper being presented at the high-profile MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference this Friday, has shown that the laymen seem to have been right all along.

New data, including both larger sample sizes and new variables (e.g. shot difficulty and defense intensity), combined with new insights into the interpretation of the statistical analysis, indicate that, yes, there is a hot hand—and it may, at times, be sizable. The absence of evidence in the previous research turns out to have been quite weak evidence of absence.

That said, the “hot hand bias”—the tendency to impulsively infer a player is hot, based on limited data—is still alive and well. The behavioral researchers were correct to identify this as an important cognitive error. But this does not mean there is no hot hand at all. A player who hits a few tough shots in a row may indeed be the best option for the team’s next shot.

Aside from enhancing our understanding of basketball, why is this new hot hand research important? It indicates the previous work was an interesting case study of scholarly overreach. Saying “there is no hot hand”—that virtually all players and fans were wrong—was much more attention-grabbing, and thus, perhaps, appealing, than simply saying there is a more subtle hot hand bias.

It is poignant that behavioral economics and psychology researchers seem guilty of the overreach here because a) they should be especially aware of the bias to exaggerate and believe what we want, rather than what is supported by the data, and b) those researchers should have been relatively confident in the existence of the hot hand, and thus skeptical of the initial research interpretation, since becoming “hot” is likely largely a psychological phenomenon.

This relates to a second, deeper implication of the new research: the potential importance of psychological factors, confidence, and momentum in performance in a range of contexts. If success begets success in basketball, then why not also in other situations? This point, while speculative, could be relevant to a variety of policy questions; for example, at what age are returns to schooling highest? Momentum effects (more likely to exist in general, given that they exist in basketball) would support focusing public and private investment in schooling at earlier ages, consistent with the recent research by another Economics Nobel Laureate, James Heckman. Better results early can give children confidence, making them more likely to achieve better results later.

While the recent labor economics literature has recognized the importance of negative psychological effects (anxiety and choking) on performance outside of sports, the positive effects are the other side of the coin, and should also be studied.

Last, it is worth explicitly noting the delicious irony of this story, and the implications. The claim by Ph.D. researchers and pop-intellectual authors that all fans and players and coaches were off-base was in fact itself off-base. This lesson supports the idea of there being great wisdom in the collection of human experience. Academics and others should not forget to have more faith in this collective wisdom, and to be more skeptical of new, counter-intuitive claims.

Jeremy Arkes & Daniel F. Stone
Jeremy Arkes is an associate professor of economics at the Naval Postgraduate School. Daniel F. Stone is an assistant professor of economics at Bowdoin College.

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 1 • 6:00 AM

The Idea of Racial Hierarchy Remains Entrenched in Americans’ Psyches

New research finds white faces are most closely associated with positive thoughts and feelings.


August 1 • 4:00 AM

How and Why Does the Social Become Biological?

To get closer to an answer, it’s helpful to look at two things we’ve taught ourselves over time: reading and math.



July 31 • 4:00 PM

Thank You for Your Service: How One Company Sues Soldiers Worldwide

With stores near military bases across the country, the retailer USA Discounters offers easy credit to service members. But when those loans go bad, the company uses the local courts near its Virginia headquarters to file suits by the thousands.


July 31 • 2:00 PM

A New York State of Fracking

Court cases. A governor’s moratorium. Pending health study. A quick guide to the state of fracking in New York.


July 31 • 11:17 AM

How California Could Power Itself Using Nothing but Renewables

We don’t need fossil fuels.


July 31 • 8:00 AM

Should Athletes Train Their Memories?

Sure, but it probably won’t help.


July 31 • 6:00 AM

Universal Basic Income: Something We Can All Agree on?

According to Almaz Zelleke, it’s not a crazy thought.


July 31 • 4:00 AM

Medical Dramas Produce Misinformed, Fatalistic Viewers

New research suggests TV doctor dramas leave viewers with skewed impressions of important health-related topics.


July 30 • 4:00 PM

Still the World’s Top Military Spender

Although declining in real terms, the United States’ military budget remains substantial and a huge drain on our public resources.



July 30 • 2:04 PM

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.


July 30 • 2:00 PM

The (Mostly Awful) Things You Learn After Investigating Unpaid Internships for a Year

Though the intern economy remains opaque, dialogue about the role of interns in the labor force—and protections they deserve—is beginning to take shape.


July 30 • 12:00 PM

Why Coffee Shortages Won’t Change the Price of Your Frappuccino

You’re so loyal to Starbucks—and the company knows it—that your daily serving of caffeine is already marked up beyond the reach of any fluctuations in supply.



July 30 • 10:00 AM

Having Difficult Conversations With Your Children

Why it’s necessary, and how to do it.


July 30 • 8:00 AM

How to Make a Convincing Sci-Fi Movie on a Tight Budget

Coherence is a good movie, and its initial shoot cost about the same amount of money as a used Prius.


July 30 • 6:00 AM

Are You Really as Happy as You Say You Are?

Researchers find a universal positivity bias in the way we talk, tweet, and write.


July 30 • 4:00 AM

The Declining Wage Gap for Gay Men

New research finds gay men in America are rapidly catching up with straight married men in terms of wages.


July 30 • 2:00 AM

LeBron James Migration: Big Chef Seeking Small Pond

The King’s return to Cleveland is a symbol for the dramatic shift in domestic as well as international migration.


July 29 • 4:00 PM

Are Children Seeking Refuge Turning More Americans Against Undocumented Immigrants?

A look at Pew Research Center survey data collected in February and July of this year.


July 29 • 2:00 PM

Under Water: The EPA’s Ongoing Struggle to Combat Pollution

Frustration and inaction color efforts to enforce the Clean Water Act.


July 29 • 12:40 PM

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it’s probably in your local river.


July 29 • 12:00 PM

Mining Your Genetic Data for Profit: The Dark Side of Biobanking

One woman’s personal story raises deep questions about the stark limits of current controls in a nascent industry at the very edge of the frontier of humans and technology.


July 29 • 11:23 AM

Where Should You Go to College?


Follow us


Subscribe Now

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it's probably in your local river.

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.