Insight Therapy

Psychologically informed reflections on how we interact.

The Madness of March Madness

There is no such thing as a "hot hand."

March is upon us and with it March Madness, a uniquely American ritual observed extra vigorously here in the Midwest. In truth, I find big time college sports distasteful. College, it seems to me, should be in the business of teaching young people, not exploiting them; it should provide education for students, not entertainment for the masses. Big time college sport is hypocritical and corrupt. Student athletes are not quite students; they are unpaid professionals working for the University's PR and fund raising machine. By the NCAA's own statistics, roughly half of big time student-athletes graduate, and the odds are even worse for black athletes. Those who graduate are often carried through with the wink and nod of dubious acceptance criteria, phantom classes, sham grades, and ever-enthusiastic tutors.

But March Madness also has its own compelling grace, provided in part by the very fact that those kids are playing for something other than money or a future in pro ball; for most of them, the games--inconsequential as they are in the big scheme of things--are a deeply felt passion.

Sport is not trivial. In sport, mankind has found a way of celebrating its dark tribal impulses without the nasty consequences. In sport we are free to ridicule and hate ‘the others' without killing or subjugating them. Sport exemplifies the essential truth that competition necessitates cooperation. If we don't agree on the rules, we can't play the game. Sports rivalries thus bind the rivals together and affirm their underlying unity.

Thoughts of March and basketball bring to my mind one Amos Tversky, the late, great Israeli-American psychologist born March 16, 1937. Tversky is not a household name, and rabid sports fans in particular would be loath to accept one of his great discoveries: that there is no such thing as a ‘shooting streak.'

Hardcore basketball fans believe, and hear repeatedly from inane sportscasters (a redundancy, of course), the notion of the ‘streaky shooter,' who gets ‘in the zone' and has the ‘hot hand.' Tversky, in a series of clever studies, showed that over the course of a season, whether or not a player makes a shot has no effect whatsoever on his odds of making the next shot. The ‘hot streak' is actually a random sequence.

This is difficult for fans to believe because they often see what looks like a streak right before their eyes. This guy just hit three baskets in a row. Obviously he's hot. Well, no. He looks hot. But things, Tversky knew, are not always what they seem. The sun, for example, seems to be setting; time seems to move faster when you're absorbed in something fascinating, like reading this column. Tversky and others have shown that random occurrences don't look random. If you flip a coin 100 times, you will get several long ‘streaks' of heads or tails in a row. And the brain, prepared as it is to detect order and pattern, is easily fooled into inferring some causation, some principled order or design.

Similarly, people often intuit erroneously that co-occurring events are causally linked; hence the prominence of another sports phenomenon: athletic superstition. Whatever you did right before you had a good game will assume causal attributes, and be repeated before the next game. This tendency to mistakenly infer causality from co-occurrence is not limited to humans; caged pigeons, receiving food at random intervals not related to their behavior, will nevertheless repeat any movement they happened to be doing before food appeared.

In humans, many common beliefs are based in this error. Some are trivial, like a fan's belief that wearing his lucky jersey helps his team win. But others are weightier. The religiously devout pray much, and when what they prayed for happens to materialize, they see these two events as causally related: prayer-answered. Not knowing the exact mechanism by which this happens allows them to conclude, when prayer doesn't ‘work,' that they didn't pray hard enough.

Parents, as I've mentioned in a previous column, also fall in the trap, seeing causality in the co-occurrence of their behaviors and their children's development. Because parenting behaviors co-occur with children's developing personalities, parents assume that their behaviors actually shape their children's personalities. But In fact, the causality is often reversed, as temperamentally easy children enable their parents to feel competent. Good children create good parents. And much of personality development is the unfolding of genetic programming. Adopted siblings who grow up in the same house are not more similar than strangers, and identical twins raised apart still greatly resemble each other.

The same applies to the notion of free will. When intention and action occur in proximity, we think one caused the other, although research has shown that both intention and action are products of unconscious brain processes. That you wake up with a headache every time you sleep with your shoes on doesn't mean sleeping with your shoes on caused your headache. Your drinking is probably causing both.

So this March, when you ‘decide' to don your ‘lucky shirt,' pray for your favorite player to ‘get hot,' and pretend that those marvelous young athletes are, a-hmm, ‘students,' remember old Amos, and practice some critical wariness toward your own perceptions. You will be setting a good example for your kids.

 

Noam Shpancer, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Otterbein College and a practicing clinical psychologist in Columbus, Ohio.

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