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An Alternative to the Hot Hand Effect?

Research provides evidence for a winner effect in professional tennis players.

Photo by Renith R on Unsplash, edited by future.nostalgia
Source: Photo by Renith R on Unsplash, edited by future.nostalgia

There is a heated debate surrounding the "hot hand effect." If you’ve played sports, you know the feeling; once you’ve made a few plays in a row it starts to feel like you can’t miss, like the chances of scoring are exponentially higher at that moment than they normally would be. In basketball, a player might take a shot they wouldn’t normally take as a “heat check” if they believe they have a hot hand, and there’s evidence that people feel this way in other real-life situations as well.

However, the research evidence for the hot hand is mixed. Some investigations show an effect (e.g. Miller & Sanjurjo, 2018) while others do not (e.g. Bar-Eli, Avugos et al. 2006)

While researchers still debate the validity of the hot hand, a similar alternative effect may provide a more grounded approach to why we sometimes feel like we can do no wrong in a competitive environment.

When controlling for ability, men’s competition results displayed a winner effect, whereas women’s outcomes did not indicate the same effect.

Research.

Lionel Page and John Coates took archival data from professional-level international tennis matches for a 2017 study looking at the winner effect. This effect is based on animal behavior literature that shows:

“Animals winning an agonistic encounter are more likely to win their next encounter while losers are less likely, even when controlling for motivation and physical size.”

Importantly, this effect “emerges from the competition itself” and is not due to any pre-existing physiological advantages. This means this effect appears because of a win or loss, independent of any advantages in strength, intelligence, or ability specific to the activity.

Both men and women’s competitions were included in the study. The researchers narrowed down the matches to only include cases where:

  1. There was a long first set tie-break.
  2. Players did not significantly differ in their pro rankings.

They chose these conditions to ensure differences between players’ abilities were minimal.

The authors ultimately settled on using matches where the first set tie break lasted longer than 20 points (i.e. where the score was higher than 11-9) because the provided sample did not show significantly different rankings between the competitors and it implied the two players were evenly matched on that specific day.

The Results.

On the men’s side, winners who won long tie-breaks had a 60% chance of winning their second set, meaning losers had only a 40% chance of winning. This occurred even though the rankings between players was not significantly different, providing evidence that a winner effect existed.

Interestingly, on the women’s side, no effect was detected. Women who won long-tie breaks were not more likely to win the second set than the women who lost those same tie-breaks.

The researchers posit that this gender difference could be linked to the up-regulation of androgen receptors. Women have lower levels of circulating testosterone than men. Since the winner effect only appeared in men, the authors hypothesized that increased testosterone (or sensitivity to testosterone) may have increased performance through a physiological feedback loop. However, we cannot be certain about this theory regarding the evidence in this study, as Page & Coates used archival data and did not actually measure the physical markers of the competitors.

What this means

The winner effect isn’t necessarily an alternative to the hot hand. In fact, the two may be complementary. The winner effect could help explain when a hot hand might be detected.

Clear benchmark achievements may provide the necessary condition for detecting a hot hand. A made three-pointer doesn’t have the same clarity as a match win in tennis; the shot could come in a meaningless fourth-quarter blow out with little to no impact on the game’s outcome or it could an important dagger that puts the team in a position to win the game. The hot hand in basketball may depend on a player’s perception of how significant that shot is to the game’s outcome.

Many hot hand studies have also used NBA data without regard to possible gender differences. Perhaps a comparison between NBA and WNBA data would provide us with a clearer picture of how hot the hot hand may be.

The results also have implications for other areas in life too. The authors talk about possible repercussions in the financial sector. If a young male stockbroker is on a hot streak, it may be time to give them a vacation or bring in a female or older male to ensure undue risks don’t ensue.

The hot hand may or may not exist, but there’s strong evidence across species that suggest the winner effect is real. Marrying the two may give us the strongest case for knowing if, and when, both effects could appear.

Copyright Josh Gonzales

References

Page, L., & Coates, J. (2017). Winner and loser effects in human competitions. Evidence from equally matched tennis players. Evolution and Human Behavior, 38(4), 530-535.

Bar-Eli, M., Avugos, S., & Raab, M. (2006). Twenty years of “hot hand” research: Review and critique. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 7(6), 525-553.

Miller, J. B., & Sanjurjo, A. (2018). Surprised by the hot hand fallacy? A truth in the law of small numbers. Econometrica, 86(6), 2019-2047.

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