Carefully Pulling Apart Two Claims About the Hot Hand

Claim one: The idea of a "hot hand" is useless for predicting basketball players' next shot. There is no point in feeding the ball to a player who is "hot," because the fact he is "hot" (if that really has any meaning) has no predictive value as to how his next shot will fair.

Tversky et al. have won here! I acknowledge this is true, as I have every time I have written on the topic.

Claim two: The notion that players are sometimes "in the zone" is merely a statistical illusion. If you are a player and think you are "hot," you are merely being deluded by your faulty understanding of statistics. As opposed to claim one, people making claim two want to deny that the subjective experience of being "on" has any validity at all. This claim is definitely floating around out there.

I post this as Steve Landsburg writes me:

"Here's a much simpler model [than yours, Callahan]:

"Half the time, players have a 'hot hand' and have a 100% chance of making their shots.  The other half, they don't have a hot hand and have a 0% chance of making their shots.  A hot hand lasts for exactly one shot; for the next shot, the player might or might not get dealt a new hot hand.

"This does exactly as good a job of contradicting Tversky as your model does.

"You might object that a hot hand that lasts for just one shot is not a hot hand."

No, I would absolutely not so object! The feeling of being "on" could definitely last just one shot! And that would not make it invalid at all. Let's carefully pull apart these two claims: I agree, I agree, I agree, that Tversky et al. have shown that the notion of a "hot hand" has no predictive value. But many, many people have gone beyond this valid finding, and claimed, "The notion that you are 'in the zone' as a shooter is an illusion." That further claim is not justified by Tversky et al., I say.

And let us note, once again, that Kahneman quite explicitly accepts the psychological literature contending that individuals can have a period where they are "in the flow," and that their performance will be superior during such a period. Would Kahneman think that the proposition that Marvin Gaye was "in the flow" when he wrote and recorded the album What's Going On? (as Gaye himself contended he was) is disproven if his next album was not so good?

UPDATE: And note, the possibility of a hot hand that lasted only one shot was explicit in my model: there was, in fact, a 50% chance that Smith's hot hand would only last one shot!


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