Who Has The Hot Hand? Is It Real?

Recently I re-read a piece by Gretchen Reynolds in the Science section of the New York Times which presented interesting data on who has the “hot hand” in sports.

michael jordan photo
Photo by BasketStreaming

It reminds us of the complex interactions that exist when looking for patterns in data and how to use those when making decisions.

First she contends us that people always believe in “hot hands,” but the evidence has not been there in the past to support it:

“But our faith in hot hands is challenged by a rich and well-regarded body of science over the past 30 years, much of it focused on basketball, that tells us our belief is mostly fallacious. In one of the first and best-known of these studies, published in 1985, scientists parsed records from the Philadelphia 76ers, the Boston Celtics and the Cornell University varsity squad and concluded that players statistically were not more likely to hit a second basket after sinking a first. But players and fans believed that they were, so a player who had hit one shot would be likely to take the team’s next, and teammates would feed this “hot” player the ball.”

Then she brings in the new data which shows that a hot hand might hold true over a longer stretch of data, but in the immediate aftermath of success there might actually be a phenomenon of the “anti-hot hand.”

Essentially, he found that in real games, players developed anti-hot hands. A momentary success bred immediate subsequent failure.

The reason for this phenomenon might be both psychological and practical, Dr. Attali wrote; players seemed to take their second shots from farther out than their first ones, perhaps because they felt buoyed by that last success. They also were likely to be defended more vigorously after a successful shot, since defenders are as influenced by a belief in hot hands as anyone else.

In the end what she suggests is that we do not yet know enough to declare streaks a reality or a fantasy.