I’ve become interested in the so-called Hot Hand Theory recently, partly for its sports betting applications. The Theory says, basically, that someone who made his last few shots is more likely to make the next shot. Many people will probably be surprised to learn this is regarded as a “theory,” as most athletes, coaches, and fans take it as a given. In fact, the Wikipedia page on the effect is labeled “The Hot Hand Fallacy.” Much of the research on the effect has shifted from whether it is real, to why people would be so dumb as to believe in such a thing.
When common sense and academics disagree, I think we should be at least as suspicious of the academics as of common sense. Not to say that they’re never right — overturning common sense is one of the best functions of academic research — just that in this case I find it a bit fishy. Anyone who has ever played sports on any level will find it hard to believe that ideas like being “hot,” “in form,” or “in the zone” have no basis in performance.
Given a large enough sample size, it seems inevitable that some patterns would appear in the data. For example, home field advantage is known to be a real and substantial effect. If we looked at basketball players’ shooting over a full season, we ought to find more clusters of made shots during home games, and more clusters of missed shots during away games. Now, this isn’t really what’s meant by the hot hand, but it would contribute to streakiness in the data. So if they aren’t finding any patterns at all, it’s not because they aren’t there, and it makes me suspicious of the methodology.
One idea that I find persuasive: maybe the hot hand is real, but offset by compensatory effects. I find it hard to believe there’s no such thing as the hot hand, but easy to believe that it might be overrated, and that players and coaches might over-compensate for it. Thus a player who believes himself to be hot takes more difficult shots, and the opposing team devotes more resources to defending him. Even if he really is hot, he may not be hot enough to overcome the challenge of taking much more difficult shots.