Israeli study debunks basketball myth

Don’t think string of scores means you’ve got a "hot hand."

By ARIEH O’SULLIVAN / THE MEDIA LINE
December 8, 2011 18:04
3 minute read.
Hapoel Jerusalem vs. Maccabi Tel Aviv

Hapoel Jerusalem vs. Maccabi Tel Aviv 311. (photo credit: Asaf Kliger)

 
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Warning to basketball players! A new study of NBA players has found that trying to repeat a successful three-pointer is more likely to be a missed shot. On the other hand, trying again after missing is more likely to end with a score.

While this may debunk the myth of the so-called “hot hand,” it shows that success reinforces risk taking and that can be manifested not only on the basketball court, but also in the stock market and battlefield.

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Hit a three-pointer? Think twice before shooting again

“What we learned is that it is not always a good idea to follow your intuition,” Yonatan Loewenstein of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told The Media Line. “We typically infer our future from our very recent experience and this is true sometimes, but not always.”

Loewenstein and graduate student Tal Neiman examined more than 200,000 attempted shots from nearly 300 leading players in the National Basketball Association (NBA) in the 2007-8 and 2008-9 regular seasons. They also examined more than 15,000 attempted shots by 41 leader players in the Women’s National Basketball Association from the same seasons.

They wanted to test the conventional wisdom that a player who scores one or more three-pointers is more likely to make the next shot from beyond the arc and enjoy a scoring streak. “There was an idea that if you make three shots then you’re sure to make a fourth,” said Loewenstein, from the university’s department of neurobiology. .

What the team found was that the professional basketball players it studied behaved like lab animals who learned from reinforcement. A successful three-point shot provided players with positive reinforcement to attempt additional three-point shots later in the game, he said.

“What we concluded is that these players chase random fluctuations in outcome of the action. And as a result they sometimes taking risks they wouldn’t if it wasn’t for their recent history,” he said.

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The research specifically cites Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers, saying that he followed a successful three point shot with another 53 percent of the time. On the other hand, if he missed a three pointer he only attempted another long shot 14% of the time. Bryant and other players, the research found, waited more time to take their next three-point shot after missing one than after scoring one.

In other words, if a player makes a three-pointer, which is statistically about 30% of the time, then they are prone to try it again shortly afterwards. On the other hand, if they missed it, they are more cautious about giving it another shot, thus missing opportunities.

“The ones who miss only make an [another] attempt when they are really sure, and as a result they miss opportunities. But when they do make an attempt they are more likely to make it because they are more cautious,” Loewenstein said.

Loewenstein said their study examined the behavior of the players and showed how it was impacted according to past actions and consequences.

The findings were published in the latest journal Nature Communications. Loewenstein said standard models of reinforcement learning used to explain behavior of rats, mice and moneys can be applied to basketball players.

“It is similar to what you see in animal studies,” he said.

“Learning from reinforcement may not improve performance, and may even damage it, if it’s not based on an accurate model of the world,” said Loewenstein. “This affects everyone's behavior. Stock brokers make investments according to past market performance, and commanders make military moves based on the results of past battles. Awareness of the limitations of this kind of learning can improve [people's] decision-making processes - as well as those of basketball players.”

“You can envision a situation where you took a risk and you were lucky and so you try again even though you could have lost all your money taking this,” he added. 

These were the best, the best in the world and even though they are the best these mechanism of learning interfered with the performance, he said.

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