Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Aug 22, 2019

The Illusion of the “Hot Hand” in Basketball – and among Monkeys

by Brett Pelham
Basketball Flying in the Air

“He’s was on fire.  But now he’s gone cold as ice.”  We hear this kind of thing all the time when watching basketball, whether an NBA championship game or a pick-up game among teenagers.  And people seem to have been talking about the hot hand for as long as basketball has been around. Further, this idea of the “hot hand” extends well beyond basketball – to include practically any sport or game in which people can count-up consecutive tries at something – from shooting baskets to hitting baseballs or winning poker hands.    

More than three decades ago, Tom Gilovich, Robert Vallone, and Amos Tversky showed that players, coaches, and fans alike believe that successes in sports are often clumped together. But Gilovich and his team showed that there simply is no such thing as the hot hand in basketball. If Kevin just made a clutch jump shot, he is no more likely to make his next jump shot than he would be if he had just missed his last jump shot. The best predictor of whether a player will make any specific jump shot is the player’s season shooting percentage for jump shots. Likewise, asking people if they feel the hot hand right before taking a shot simply does not predict how likely they are to make that shot.

A lot of apparent clumping in event sequences (such as tossing five heads in a row in a long series of coin tosses) is just randomness rather than hotness. Gilovich and his colleagues suggested that people believe in the hot hand because they apply the representativeness heuristic to short event sequences. Specifically, they wrote that “even short random sequences are thought to be highly representative [of longer sequences].”   

Other reserchers argue that a belief in the hot hand in basketball is just overgeneralizaton. Some things in life do happen in clumps. Due to injuries, illnesses, and family crises, for example, athletes certainly have good and bad games, or good and bad seasons. So players’ performances do vary by season or injury status. But there is no evidence of a hot hand from shot to shot. 

In contrast to the original idea that the hot hand is some kind of cognitive illusion, Andreas Wilke and H. Clark Barrett suggested that the bias known as the hot hand is probably grounded deeply in the human evolutionary past. People have been hunting and gathering (foraging, that is) a lot longer than they have been shooting hoops. Foragers implicitly know that good things do often come in clumps. It’s the rare mango tree that has just one ripe mango. Likewise, many hunted animals can often be found in groups, near food sources (say, mango trees) or watering holes.

On the basis of this evolutionary logic, Wilke and Barrett reasoned that there might be an evolved default assumption that desirable things come in clumps. They stressed that this assumption of “clumpiness” is not cast in stone. Experience with a particular kind of judgment might teach us otherwise. But nature may lead us to look for clumps – so much so that we are predisposed to see clumping where it may not exist. 

In support of this reasoning, Wilke and Barrett showed that UCLA undergrads seemed to adopt a “hot hand” default in making a wide range of judgments. Students assumed, for example, that if the nest they just observed had a bird in it, then the next nest they observed would probably have one, too. Likewise, students assumed that if a tossed coin just landed on heads, then the next coin toss would be more likely to land on heads than on tails. This “hot hand” assumption applied to students’ judgments about nests, fruits, parking spaces, bus stops, and coin tosses -- every judgment the researchers examined.

Wilke and Barrett also showed that the hot hand bias was bigger for predictions about natural events than predictions about artificial events. For example, it was bigger for judgments of nests and fruits than for judgments of coin tosses.  In a follow-up study, Wilke and Barrett focused on judgments of fruit (a natural event) and judgment of coin tosses (an unnatural event). They also compared the judgments of another group of UCLA students with the judgments of the Shuar, a group of indigenous people from the Amazon in Ecuador.  In the student sample, the hot hand assumption was weaker for coin tosses than for fruit foraging. For the Shuar, however, the hot hand bias was equally powerful for both kinds of judgments. The Shuar, of course, have little or no exposure to probability theory.

In a follow-up report, Wilke teamed up with two primatologists – Tommy Blanchard and Benjamin Hayden – to show that even rhesus monkeys show a hot hand bias.  The monkeys received a small squirt of a delicious liquid when they made correct predictions about a series of events. The pattern of the monkeys’ predictions showed that they assumed that one reward would usually be followed by another.

Such evolutionarily-inspired studies do not invalidate the original work on the hot hand. But they do suggest that the hot hand may be grounded in evolved tendencies that can be seen in other foraging species as well as in people. Further, consistent with evolutionary approaches that suggest error and bias are not always problematic, such studies suggest that people’s belief in the hot hand may be a mostly-adaptive bias rather than a fallacy across the board.

For Further Reading

Blanchard, T. C., Wilke, A., & Hayden, B. Y. (2014). Hot-hand bias in rhesus monkeys. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition, 40(3), 280-286.

Gilovich, T., Vallone, R., & Tversky, A. (1985). The hot hand in basketball: On the misperception of random sequences. Cognitive Psychology, 17, 295–314. doi:10.1016/0010-0285(85)90010-6

Haselton, M. G., Bryant, G. A., Wilke, A., Frederick, D. A., Galperin, A., Frankenhuis, W. E., & Moore, T. (2009). Adaptive rationality: An evolutionary perspective on cognitive bias. Social Cognition, 27, 733–763. doi:10.1521/soco.2009.27.5.733

Wilke, A., & Barrett, H. C. (2009). The hot hand phenomenon as a cognitive adaptation to clumped resources. Evolution and Human Behavior, 30(3), 161-169.

Note. This blog is adapted from a section of Brett Pelham’s textbook on evolutionary psychology. See Pelham, B. W. (2019). Evolutionary psychology: Genes, environments, and time. London, UK: Palgrave MacMillan Publishing. 


Brett Pelham is a social psychologist who studies judgmental heuristics, social cognition, the self-concept, and other social psychological issues. Brett is also an associate editor at Character and Context.      


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