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The Hotly Contested Science Behind the ‘Hot Hand’

Researchers have studied athletes’ hot streaks for decades. But is this a real phenomenon, or just in our heads?

On December 9, 2004, the Houston Rockets were losing to the San Antonio Spurs 76-68, with less than a minute left in the game. But then, out of nowhere, Tracy McGrady sank four three-pointers in a row, along with a free throw, racking up an unbelievable 13 points in 33 seconds. T-Mac was undeniably “on fire,” or as others might say, he had a “hot hand” — a phenomenon widely accepted in sports that refers to when athletes seemingly cannot fail. 

In fact, hot streaks in basketball have been analyzed, scrutinized and argued over in academia ever since a 1985 study, published in the journal Cognitive Psychology, claimed the “hot hand” phenomenon was merely a mental illusion. At the time, Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach fired back at the author with, “Who is this guy? So he makes a study. I couldn’t care less.”

In general, the athletic world “thought these egghead researchers should have stayed in their lane,” Joshua B. Miller, an associate professor of economics at the University of Melbourne, tells me. After all, athletes and coaches are the ones who’ve witnessed hot hands firsthand— a la McGrady’s 13 points in 33 seconds, LeBron James’ 16 points in two minutes or Reggie Miller’s eight points in nine seconds

Still, after a follow-up study that echoed similar sentiments was cited favorably by Nobel Prize winner Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their pop-economics bestseller Nudge, the naysayers began to accept the findings. Although the research was later removed from revised editions of the book, the notion that the hot hand was bullshit stuck and has resulted in what Miller describes as “a jocks versus nerd ‘fight’ from high school that never ends.”

What Happened in 1985

The original study on the hot-hand phenomenon examined shooting percentages from the Philadelphia 76ers, but researchers didn’t take important variables into consideration, like the distance of each shot or how closely the player was guarded. 

“Greater shot distance and closer guarding would, of course, work against the continuation of long streaks of made baskets, thus potentially dampening evidence of a hot hand,” explains Alan Reifman, a professor of human development and family sciences at Texas Tech University. Reifman, who has a blog about the evolving hot-hand research, notes that recent studies have benefited from sky cameras and other technology that gives researchers more information to work with. 

Technological advances or not, Miller argues that there are no good ways to study live-game data because any given contest can show a large hot-hand effect, or none at all. He cites mathematician Jordan Ellenberg’s useful analogy on the hot hand: “If the test is less sensitive, it will declare the results of the experiment insignificant, whether or not there’s really an effect. If you look at Mars with a research-grade telescope, you’ll see moons; if you look with binoculars, you won’t. But the moons are still there!”

In the context of sports, the “players and coaches have richer information than researchers do. They may have telescopes,” Miller says. 

How the Hot-Hand Research Has Been Corrected 

In order to correct errors in past research, Miller and fellow economist Adam Sanjurjo focused their studies on controlled environments where having a hot hand can be tracked, like practice shooting, three-point contests and free throws. From there, Miller and Sanjurjo have published multiple papers that debunked the 1985 study and showed a hot-hand effect of up to 11 percent. However, other research from Harvard found only a slight hot-hand effect of about two percent

This is where the current state of the hot-hand discourse has landed. “I’d say there is validity to hot hand, but there are questions of how much the effect varies and under what circumstances is it more or less important,” says statistician Andrew Gelman.

Hot Streaks Aren’t Just About Basketball 

A majority of hot-hand research has focused on basketball, but Reifman notes that “some of the strongest evidence for the hot hand has emerged from other sports, such as bowling.” 

But that doesn’t mean hot streaks exist everywhere we think they do. For instance, Miller thinks that believing in the hot-hand phenomenon is a mistake when it comes to playing dice, roulette or even flipping a coin because there’s less skill and more randomness involved. “If a gambler believes in that, they’ll likely lose money because of it,” he says. And yet with poker, or another game that could involve card counting and some level of expertise, “a player may observe that they’re sometimes in the zone or out of the zone in terms of attending to and processing the information that they need to make a decision.” 

The same thing goes for sports — and likely life. You can’t get on a hot streak for something you’re not already skilled at doing.

Giving Our Hot Streaks More Credit

As sports journalist Ben Cohen points out in his book The Hot Hand, human beings are primed to see streaks in pretty much everything — from algorithm-selected songs on Spotify to basketball games. Sometimes these streaks are random and a product of our perception, sometimes they aren’t. 

What Miller and other researchers’ work has demonstrated is that in basketball, these streaks aren’t always random, and “there’s a subtle mathematical reason why the earlier hot-hand papers appeared to find no effect, even though such an effect was in the data all along,” Gelman says.

In the end, the decades of fighting over the hot-hand phenomenon underscores how difficult it is to correct flawed findings once they’ve caught on. But economist Jason Collins argues that there is a massive body of research suggesting that slight environmental cues can change our actions. “Words associated with old people can slow us down. Images of money can make us selfish,” he writes. “Yet why haven’t these same researchers been asking why a basketball player would not be influenced by their earlier shots — surely a more salient part of the environment than the word ‘Florida’?”

In other words, when human behavior is influenced by so many subtle things in life, it would be ridiculous to rule out that our actions can be impacted by our successes, especially when experiencing them in rapid succession. So don’t let an argument between jocks and nerds get in the way of a good hot streak. If you’ve done it before, you can do it again.