Sorry, Syracuse: Why the 'Hot Hand' in Basketball (Maybe) Isn't a Real Thing

Reading the scholarly literature on shooting streaks
Reuters / Gary Cameron

TO THE NAKED EYE, IT MAY APPEAR THAT: Syracuse University's sophomore guard Michael Carter-Williams was on a hot streak Thursday night in Washington, D.C., posting a career-high 24 points and helping to upset the top-seeded Indiana Hoosiers 61-50 in the Sweet Sixteen round of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament.

BUT ACCORDING TO SOME PEOPLE WHO THOUGHT REALLY HARD ABOUT THIS: Perhaps no such hot streak ever happened, because there may not be such thing as a hot streak at all.

In 1991, psychologist Thomas D. Gilovich and his colleagues Amos Tversky and Bob Vallone conducted the classic investigation of the phenomenon of the "hot hand"—that is, when a player gathers shooting momentum or gets "in the zone" to the extent that he or she seemingly can't miss a shot—and published their findings in The Wilson Quarterly. They discovered it didn't exist anywhere outside of players' and fans' imaginations; rather, the research team found, the "hot hand" happens when an optimistic interpretation and some funky psychology are applied to a statistically average outcome of shots missed and shots made.

To test this notion, Gilovich and his team created an experiment to test the hypothesis that if a player is subject to random periods of "hot" and "cold" shooting, he or she should be more likely to make a shot after making his previous one—or previous several—than after missing. So they gathered the shooting records from the 1980-1981 season of the Philadelphia 76ers (then the only team that kept records of the order of a player's hits and misses), and what they found was that

Contrary to the hot hand hypothesis, players were not more likely to make a basket after making their last shot. In fact, there was a slight tendency for players to shoot better after missing their last shot. They made 51 percent of their shots after making their previous shot, compared to 54 percent after missing it. They also had a better chance of making a basket if they missed their previous two or three shots.

But when they interviewed that year's team members, including the famous Julius "Dr. J" Erving, they were firmly convinced otherwise—as were... well, most people, according to Gilovich. They suggested that a "hot" player cools off because opposing players start to guard him more aggressively, or because he gets over-confident and starts taking tougher shots. So Gilovich, now a professor of psychology at Cornell, also studied the players' free-throw records. He found that, on average, they made 75 percent of their second free throws after making their first, and 75 percent after missing their first. In other words, the "streak" leading up to each free throw made no difference whatsoever on the outcome of the shot.

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Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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