The Cornell men’s basketball team is on a tear this season, at 21-4 so far, and with wins (or near-wins) over nationally ranked teams. Sell-outs here used to be limited to hockey, but now the Newman Arena is packed for the home games and there’s talk of the Big Red going further in the NCAA tournament than ever before. The big media are even reporting on them. I admit that as sports go, I’m basically a fair-weather fan, so our increasingly winning team has me in the bleachers every time they’re at home.
At a recent game, I happened to sit next to Tom Gilovich, professor of social psychology at Cornell. And seeing Tom reminded me that one of his studies is a great example of the difference between science and “common sense.” In this blog, we try to look at what science has to offer, and how it may conflict with popular opinion, media reports, or political viewpoints. Tom and colleagues used the basketball court to look at why people erroneously see patterns in random occurrences, despite evidence to the contrary.
They looked at the idea of a basketball player having the “hot hand” in a 1985 article. That is, a player is thought to hit baskets in streaks, so when the player has made a shot or two, everyone wants to get the ball in his or her hands. Gilovich and colleagues surveyed 100 basketball fans, who overwhelmingly believed in shooting streaks like this. Then, they analyzed shooting data for the Philadelphia 76ers and conducted an experiment using the men’s and women’s basketball teams.
The result? No hot hand. Players aren’t more likely to hit the next shot if they hit the one before. Instead, the chance that someone would make a shot was approximately the same whether or not he or she had made or missed similar shots previously.
It’s just a misattribution we make. But we all deeply believe it’s true, and probably would continue to do so even when presented with hard data that no hot hand exists. It’s analogous to the persistence of erroneous beliefs in a number of more important arenas (like health, for example).
I now stand corrected about this particular belief. However, if he hits a couple three-pointers in a row with a minute left, it’s going to be hard to keep myself from standing up and screaming “Get it to Wittman!”