‘Hot hands’ keep athletes on win streak

YALE  (US) — Athletes on a winning streak are likely to stay on one, according to new evidence that supports the “hot hand” phenomenon.

For the study, published in the journal PLoS One, researchers at Yale University investigated the common belief among basketball players and fans that players’ probabilities of hitting a free throw are greater following a hit than following a miss on the previous shot.

Past studies have found the data doesn’t support the theory—instead human subjects simply misperceive random sequences and tend to attribute non-random patterns to completely random data.

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Yale researchers used a data set of more than 300,000 free throws to investigate the “hot hand” phenomenon—a streak of positive outcomes that is likely to continue. They analyzed all free throws taken during five regular seasons NBA seasons from 2005 to 2010.

The researchers saw a significant increase in players’ probabilities of hitting the second shot in a two-shot series compared to the first one. They also found that in a set of two consecutive shots, the probability of hitting the second shot is greater following a hit than following a miss on the previous one.

The presence of the “hot hand” phenomenon in basketball data is due to the player experiencing better and worse periods, says Gur Yaari, postdoctoral associate of pathology.

These periods are possibly determined by other factors rather than a causal connection between the result of the previous shot and the result of the current one. Since the number of free throws taken by one player in one game is low, in order to decide between these two options, further research is needed.

“Our results set the stage for further physiological and psychological investigations of the origin of this phenomenon,” says Yaari. “While the example we studied came from the sporting world, the implications are much more far reaching.”

More news from Yale University: http://opa.yale.edu/