Anyone familiar with sports or competitive games of any kind (e.g. the stock market, tennis, fantasy football leagues) is familiar with the idea of the “hot hand.” The hot hand typically consists of a player making multiple successful plays in a row — a basketball player hits several shots in a row, a baseball player gets several hits in a row, a gambler throws lucky 7s, etc.
But, though it is hard to wrap our brains around, it appears that the “hot hand” is largely an illusion. There have been dozens of sophisticated studies examining the “hot hand” phenomenon, and most of the evidence suggests that these hot streaks we see are really not “hot” streaks, but random occurrences of “clumpy” outcomes. To use basketball as an example, when a player hits two or three shots in a row, a fourth successful shot is no more likely to follow than if the player had just missed a shot.
Yes, sometimes players do make several shots in a row, and gamblers do make several correct guesses in a row. But it’s largely a matter of the odds.
Think of it this way. If you flipped a coin 1,000 times, you’d expect that the final ratio of heads to tails would be very close to 50% for each side. However, you would not expect that the coin would alternate between heads and tails on each flip. You would expect that at times you would get several heads in row, and then maybe a tail or two and then several more heads. In 1,000 flips of a coin, you would expect some unusually long streaks of one or the other.
If we were talking about hypothetical coin flipping, it is unlikely that you would be tempted to think that heads were “hot” if the coin just happened to land on the head side seven times in a row. However, if you had chosen heads and someone else had chosen tails, you might very well be tempted to think, I’m on a roll! and wonder what you could do to continue it. You might even develop a ritual around the coin flip to try to maintain that “hot hand” — stand on one leg, blow on the coins, always toss with the same hand, etc.
Ok, you wouldn’t, but some people would.
Recent research suggests that this proclivity, which we all share, to see “hot hands” in places where there are really just random occurrences, derives from our evolution in an environment in which resources were often “clumpy.” Clumpy resources are those kinds of things that are likely to occur together. In nature, many resources — especially things such as fruits, nuts, berries, birds, antelope, deer, etc., occur in natural clumps. When you see one clump of berries, it’s likely that there are other berries near to hand (unless you’ve just eaten them).
If you were hungry and came upon a few clumps of berries, your best bet would be to keep scouring the underbrush nearby for more until you were sure you’d taken advantage of all the area had to offer before moving on. The assumption of clumpiness is so ingrained a part of our thinking that it is hard to even imagine a creature that would not behave in this way.
Part of the evidence for the adaptive nature of the “hot hand” thinking came from research looking for belief in the “cold hand.” Researchers found that people are not nearly as susceptible to believing in a cold streak. In other words, when a player misses a couple shots in a row we are not nearly as quick to label the player as cold. We are much quicker to (erroneously) spot positive clumps than we are to assume the end of good fortune.
Belief in the “hot hand” of clumpy resources was likely a great advantage to our ancestors. However, it’s often not so great for those of us in the modern world, who find ourselves betting on patterns, whether in the form of lottery tickets, fantasy league players, or the stock market, that are really just random occurrences.
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This blog post was written by Kerry Cunningham, a member of the Personality & Wellbeing Laboratory and recent M.S. graduate in Industrial-Organizational Psychology at San Francisco State University. Follow @kerryfc
This post is derived in part from work published in the following research papers:
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.
Scheibehenne, B., Wilke, A., & Todd, P. M. (2011). Expectations of clumpy resources influence predictions of sequential events. Evolution and Human Behavior, 32(5), 326–333. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2010.11.003