Hot Hand Effect Definition
Many sports fans, commentators, players, and even coaches share a belief that a particular player can for some period of time have the hot hand; that is, be “in the zone,” “on a roll,” “unstoppable,” or “playing their A-game.” The hot hand effect refers to the tendency for people to expect streaks in sports performance to continue. For example, people believe that a basketball player’s chances of making a shot are higher if the player had just made the previous shots, and gamblers believe in bettors being “on fire” and having lucky winning streaks.
The hot hand effect is typically discussed in two ways. In the basketball-shooting example, the hot hand effect pertains to the belief that a hot player has an increased likelihood of making the next shot he or she takes. Recently, the term hot hand effect has been used more generally to refer to when people expect streaks to continue for any sequence of events with just two outcomes (e.g., hits vs. misses in basketball shooting, or wins vs. losses in roulette betting).
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It is important to distinguish between two terms: the hot hand effect and the hot hand (also sometimes labeled positive recency). The former refers to people’s beliefs about hot hand performances, while the latter refers to the actual occurrence of hot streaks in sports performances.
Evidence for the Hot Hand Effect
Although belief in the hot hand in basketball is quite common, analyses of the shooting statistics of professional basketball players playing for the Philadelphia 76ers, New Jersey Nets, New York Knicks, and the Boston Celtics showed that, in fact, basketball players do not get the hot hand. The disparity between people’s perceptions of streaks and the existence of actual streaks was confirmed with a controlled experiment in which varsity college basketball players made free throws. Before each shot, both the players and observers predicted the outcome of the attempt. Both players and observers believed that some players were hot while shooting free throws, but only 1 out of the 26 players actually showed positive dependencies between shots and an unusual number of streaks.
Psychologists and statisticians have examined athletic performances from a variety of sports other than basketball to seek evidence for streaky performances. They have analyzed playing records and tested for one or more of the following indicators of the hot hand: positive dependencies, unusually long streaks, or an unusually high number of streaks. In addition to basketball shooting, researchers have failed to document evidence for the hot hand in baseball hitting and scoring, professional golf putting, volleyball scoring, and baseball and basketball game winning.
Altogether, the bulk of research findings indicate that actual hot (and cold) playing streaks are more rare in sports than people believe. However, some evidence for streaky performances was found in bowling, hockey goaltending, billiards, horseshoes, tennis, darts, and amateur golf putting in a laboratory setting. This seems to suggest that nonreactive, turn-based, uniform, individual sports are more likely to yield evidence of hot hand performances than are more reactive team sports events that involve more external and situational factors.
Research on gambling beliefs also supports the hot hand effect. Gamblers’ responses to a survey indicated that they believe that three distinct factors contribute to winning: chance, skill, and luck. Belief in the power of skill and luck could account for the findings that gamblers playing roulette (a) had more confidence that they would win a bet after having won the previous bet(s) and (b) also increased their bet amounts. Belief in lucky winning streaks persists even if the game is based purely on chance (e.g., roulette) and despite the fact that the odds of most casino games are not in the gamblers’ favor.
Psychological Mechanism of the Hot Hand Effect
Belief in the hot hand has been explained within the framework of the representativeness heuristic. People believe that very short sequences should be representative of long sequences produced by the same process. For sequences produced by a random process, people expect the prototypical random sequence to be composed of approximately equal proportions of the possible outcomes (50-50), balanced in unrealistically short runs, and not patterned in any obvious manner. Hence, there is a tendency for people to expect an excessive number of alternations and short streaks in judgments of random sequences.
Given this concept of the prototypical random sequence, when people observe a sequence with seemingly few alternations and long streaks (as is often the case with basketball shooting), they will judge the sequence as being unrepresentative of a random process. The idea of a random mechanism is therefore rejected and replaced by an expectation of hot hand patterns.
For example, people’s misconception of what a random sequence should look like leads them to perceive a basketball player who has just hit four baskets in a row as hot, when in fact it is not unusual for a truly random sequence to contain a streak of four.
Hot Hand Effect Implications
The hot hand effect has implications for financial decisions and behaviors, such as gambling or investing money. The tendency for people to perceive unusual streaks that do not actually exist can cause them to bet money on outcomes that they mistakenly believe they can predict. For example, research shows that people sometimes overinvest in stocks that are doing well in the short term and not think enough about the long-term behavior of stock prices. Predicting outcomes based on a misperception of streaks and short sequences can be financially costly.
- Gilovich, T., Vallone, R., & Tversky, A. (1985). The hot hand in basketball: On the misperception of random sequences. Cognitive Psychology, 17, 295-314.