‘Hot hand’ not so hot

basketballMany basketball fans believe in a ‘hot hand’, where a player has a really great game, and they are likely to make every shot they try for. Researchers from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem decided to investigate this ‘hot hand’ idea.

In basketball, you get more points if you shoot for the hoop from far away – three points for a long shot, two for a shot from closer in. Generally, the long distance shots don’t go in as often as close shots, so it’s a risk to try for one. The researchers made a prediction: that professional basketball players would overgeneralise from their very recent performance to expected future performance. In other words, they would try more three-point shots after a successful three-point shot, and less three-point shots after an unsuccessful three-point shot.

The researchers looked at hundreds of thousands of shots that players took during two seasons of NBA and WNBA basketball. They found what they were expecting – as players got more and more three-point shots in a row, they were more and more likely to try for another and vice versa.

The researchers also looked to see how often these shots went in. If the ‘hot hand’ was real, the researchers might expect more three-point shots to go in after a streak of them. However, the researchers found the opposite. Players were typically scoring on about 36% of three-point shots, but if they took another attempt after a successful three-point shot, their chance of scoring was only 35%. After two successful shots, the chance of a third successful shot was only 30%, and after three the chances of scoring dropped to roughly 26%!

After tallying up points scored, the researchers believe players should consider each shot separately, instead of trying to use their ‘hot hand’ or worrying about a missed shot.

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