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

September 19 • 4:00 PM

In Your Own Words: What It’s Like to Get Sued Over Past Debts

Some describe their surprise when they were sued after falling behind on medical and credit card bills.



September 19 • 1:26 PM

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won’t change minds.


September 19 • 12:00 PM

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.


September 19 • 10:00 AM

Why the Poor Remain Poor

A follow-up to “How Being Poor Makes You Poor.”


September 19 • 9:03 AM

Why Science Won’t Defeat Ebola

While science will certainly help, winning the battle against Ebola is a social challenge.


September 19 • 8:00 AM

Burrito Treason in the Lone Star State

Did Meatless Mondays bring down Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples?


September 19 • 7:31 AM

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.


September 19 • 6:00 AM

The Most Untouchable Man in Sports

How the head of the governing body for the world’s most popular sport freely wields his wildly incompetent power.


September 19 • 4:00 AM

The Danger of Dining With an Overweight Companion

There’s a good chance you’ll eat more unhealthy food.



September 18 • 4:00 PM

Racial Disparity in Imprisonment Inspires White People to Be Even More Tough on Crime

White Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black.



September 18 • 2:00 PM

The Wages of Millions Are Being Seized to Pay Past Debts

A new study provides the first-ever tally of how many employees lose up to a quarter of their paychecks over debts like unpaid credit card or medical bills and student loans.


September 18 • 12:00 PM

When Counterfeit and Contaminated Drugs Are Deadly

The cost and the crackdown, worldwide.


September 18 • 10:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Molly Crabapple?

Noah Davis talks to Molly Crapabble about Michelangelo, the Medicis, and the tension between making art and making money.


September 18 • 9:00 AM

Um, Why Are These Professors Creeping on My Facebook Page?

The ethics of student-teacher “intimacy”—on campus and on social media.


September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?



September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.


September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.


September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.


September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


Follow us


For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won't change minds.

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

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