Science & Environment

Doubt cast on basketball's 'hot hands' theory

Dallas Mavericks vs LA Lakers
Image caption The team examined records from men's and women's US basketball games

The idea of a basketball player's ability to successfully shoot a series of hoops - so-called "hot hands" - may be on shaky ground.

A study in the journal Nature Communications shows the opposite of what some players and fans believe.

Researchers found that players who scored a three-point goal and then attempted another three-pointer were more likely to miss the follow-up shot.

The study casts doubt on the ability of athletes to predict future performance.

The research by Dr Yonatan Loewenstein and graduate student Tal Neiman at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel, examined the popular idea that a player who scores one or more three-pointers improves their odds of scoring another.

In basketball, three point field goals are scored from outside the three point line, which runs in an arc around the basket.

The researchers examined more than 200,000 attempted shots from 291 leading players in the US National Basketball Association (NBA) from the 2007-2008 and 2008-2009 seasons.

They also looked at more than 15,000 attempted shots by 41 leading players in the US Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) during the 2008 and 2009 seasons.

Power of positivity

The analysis showed how scores or misses affected a player's behaviour later in the game, and found that after a successful three-pointer, players were significantly more likely to attempt another.

So a successful three-point shot provided players with the psychological boost - positive reinforcement - to attempt other three-point shots later in the game.

They discovered that players who scored a three-pointer and then attempted another were more likely to miss the follow-up shot. However, players who missed a previous three-pointer were more likely to score with their next attempt.

"[Basketball players] assume that even one shot is indicative of future performance, while not taking into account that the situation in which they previously scored is likely to be different than the current one," said Dr Loewenstein.

He said this showed that despite years of experience, professional basketball players let the outcomes of their most recent actions affect their behaviour in ways that can negatively impact their performance.