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Sports: Hot Hand, or Dumb Luck?

Is there such a thing as a hot hand? Do players and coaches believe it?

Most athletes and fans believe that there is such a thing as a “hot hand” in sports – most typically, a basketball player who goes on a shooting streak, making basket after basket. There is also belief that a player will suddenly be unable to make any baskets – going on a “cold streak.” Is there such a thing as a “hot hand”? Does belief in the hot hand affect players’ behavior? How about the behavior of the coach?

First, research suggests that there is no such thing as a hot hand (or cold hand) -- The probability of making a given shot is independent of previous shots. So, the hot hand is a myth, and based on people’s perception, not reality. More recent research, however, suggests that players are affected by the perception of a hot hand, and a player is more likely to take a shot after making a basket than after missing one.

A new study that looked at an entire NBA season suggests that not only is a player more likely to take a shot after a made shot, but the player is more likely to take a riskier shot (from greater distance) after a made shot. Moreover, the greater distance decreases the probability that the player will make the next shot. Finally, the hot hand can affect both the player AND the coach! A study by Yigal Attali found that coaches were more likely to substitute a player after a missed shot.

This most recent study is:

Attali, Y. (in press). Perceived hotness affects behavior of basketball players and coaches. Psychological Science.

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