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The Hot Hand

January 17, 2019 AT 12:00 AM

Is it really part of the game?

In 1989, two researchers published one of the earlier analytic studies based on the NBA and sparked a huge debate. Tversky and Gilovich claimed that the ‘cold fact’ was that the ‘hot hand’ phenomenon was not real, and merely a figment of the imaginations of fans and players alike.

Their argument was centered on misjudgments of expected random distributions of hits and misses as a ‘hot hand’. Yet many players would swear by the tendency of made shots to be self-promoting, with success breeding further success. Perhaps the shooter simply gets more confident or relaxed when he or she gets ‘in the zone’.

The crux of the argument came from our human tendency to have a misconception of chance, whereby we expect a random distribution in a small sample to look like an even mix, for instance with heads being followed by tails. It may also result from what we term the availability heuristic, whereby it is easier to recall salient events (such as a shooting streak). 

However, later studies have shown that the ‘hot hand’ exists in other sports such as baseball, bowling and volleyball, highlighting the unique impact of defense and shot selection in basketball. Indeed, it has been shown in the NBA that a player is more likely to take his team’s next shot and to take a more difficult shot following a successful shot.

Accounting for shot selection and the ‘cold hand’ negative bias that is inherent in conditional probability, we find that there is in fact evidence of a ‘hot hand’. However, it also shows us correctly that people tend to overrate the hot-hand effect, due to a tendency to discern random patterns where there are none. Thus, to all the players out there, feel free to ‘feed the hot hand’ but try not to change the way you play. Beware of extinguishing your own hot hand through ‘heat checks’ and poor shot selection!

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