Evidence-based basketball, redux

ncca basketballThe Cornell men’s basketball team didn’t qualify for the NCAA basketball tournament this year. And our next nearest team, Syracuse University, was knocked out last weekend. Even still, much of the county will spend the next several weeks watching to see which college basketball team comes out on top this year. 

So here’s an excerpt for one of our most popular posts. First published in March 2010, it detailed a study by Tom Gilovich, professor of social psychology at Cornell, about the idea of scoring streaks by basketball players:

“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).”

Data or not, over the next few weeks, chances are that we’ll all be cheering for teams to pass the ball to the highest-scoring players. In a moment of passionate cheering, it can be tough to consider the evidence.

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