Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Books: The Science Behind "The Hot Hand"

The Hot Hand: The Mystery and Science of Streaks
By Ben Cohen
Custom House; hardcover; $28.99

One of the biggest things in sports is the notion of "the hot hand," such as when Indiana Pacer Reggie Miller lit up the Knicks in the 1994 playoffs, or when Patriots quarterback Tom Brady would keep throwing the ball to Rob Gronkowski, or when golfer Tiger Woods was having an amazing day on the greens.

For decades, psychologists and economists have studied the science of streaks to determine whether the "hot hand" exists. Is there such a thing as being in the zone, or is it simply a case of seeing patterns in randomness? Genius scholars and Nobel Prize winners have spent years answering this question.

A substantial number of the decisions we make every day are rooted in two opposing beliefs: that if something happened before, it will happen again - or if it happened before, it probably won't happen again.

Wall Street Journal sports reporter Ben Cohen, with his new book, The Hot Hand, has written an entertaining and provocative investigation into the seductive idea that streaks not only exist, but can be created. People look for patterns in coincidence, and coincidence in patterns. 

Is there a hidden logic that defies our basic knowledge of probability? If it is noticed that someone has a hot hand, can we adjust to take advantage? If we are mistaken that someone has a hot hand, what are the costs? What happens when we're right, and conversely, if we were right all along?

Cohen, in order to answer these questions, embarks on a kaleidoscopic investigation that ranges from the magical night that forever changed Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry's life, to a billionaire investor who made a fortune betting against streaks, to a couple of young economists who realized everyone else had been doing the wrong math, to how the bias of the human mind influenced a distinguished Iraqi sculptor's attempts to seek asylum, to the mystery of a missing World War II hero, and how Shakespeare's success was abetted by a flea.

Cohen writes, "I believed it was serendipity that I had stumbled across the hot hand in my favorite sport. It wasn't. The history of the hot hand has always been rooted in basketball. And so basketball is in this book because it has to be. There is no intellectually honest way to write about the hot hand without writing about basketball. The very smart people who have studied the hot hand for a very long time understood that basketball happens to be a wonderful excuse to explore the rest of the world.
    But the stories that have always resonated with me are the ones that are not quite about sports, and there are genius scholars and Nobel Prize winners who have devoted their attention to the hot hand in basketball because they weren't just studying basketball. When you start looking for the hot hand, in fact, it becomes hard not to see it everywhere.
    That's why I had to make sure I hadn't lost my mind when I read the first scholarly paper about the hot hand that was published in 1985. What made it such a classic work of psychology was its startling conclusion that the hot hand did not exist. This seemed too crazy to be true. As I would soon discover, I was not alone in my shock. The paper was a widely discussed sensation in part because nobody believed it.
        We'd all seen the hot hand. We'd all felt the hot hand. The hot hand was burned into our memories. And the appeal of this enticing paper was that it challenged something we all thought to be true. It was a study with a digestible takeaway that forced us to reckon with an eternal question of the human condition: How much should we believe what we see and feel?
    The world's brightest academics have been searching for hard evidence of the hot hand ever since. By obsessively looking for proof of something they couldn't find, these people inadvertently turned the hot hand into the Bigfoot of basketball. But those decades of crumpled papers, broken pencils, and deleted spreadsheets only strengthened the case of the original paper. It became clear over time that it was foolish to believe in the hot hand. Or was it?"

There also is a practical use for the reader, and there are examples of how recognizing the "hot hand" can, or can't, be used to your advantage, including: since scientists now believer that our best creative work comes in bunches, artists, scientists, and creative types should churn out more week after a successful project; it can backfire to believe in the "hot hand" in some industries, with investors better off sticking to principles than chasing patterns; streaks can be real in sports and, if you're an athlete, there are times when it makes sense to take chances and embrace riskier strategies; the "hot hand" and gambler's fallacy are biases for managers to keep in mind, and they should rethink the order in which they read job applications to give candidates a fair shake when hiring; and questioning how teachers grade essays, as one professor who has studied the "hot hand" now shuffles his exams and grades them twice so that his implicit bias doesn't affect his decisions.

The Hot Hand is quite an entertaining read, as it takes us to the jungles of the Amazon, a sugar-beet farm in the Midwest, and strip mall arcades to show us how recognition of patterns can be fruitful, or a total disaster. It can appeal to readers across a wide spectrum, from sports fans to readers of business books to people searching for self-improvement and "big idea" non-fiction.

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