Tuesday, June 26, 2007

I just finished reading the book Stumbling on Happiness by Harvard social psychologist Daniel Gilbert.

The premise of the book is that we tend not to be very good at predicting how we would react emotionally, if a given event were to occur in the future. For example, if someone were asked how he or she would feel if his or her favorite sports team were to win a championship, the person's estimated happiness would likely exceed his or her actual happiness if the team actually won a championship and you could survey the fan a while afterwards. Gilbert and his University of Virginia colleague Tim Wilson refer to this area of research as "affective forecasting."

I did not start reading the book with hot hand research in mind. However, Gilbert's chapter on “presentism” really seemed to fit what may be going on with hot hand perceptions. The meaning of presentism can be grasped via a couple of Gilbert quotes:

...when brains plug holes in their conceptualizations of yesterday and tomorrow, they tend to use a material called today...(p. 125).

...if the present lightly colors our remembered pasts, it thoroughly infuses our imagined futures... (p. 127).

To use basketball as an illustration, presentism can be applied to hot hand perceptions as follows. An observer sees a player make several shots in a row (present) and naturally expects a high likelihood of the player making his or her next several shots (future). Such expectations presumably would be what give rise to the thinking that a team should always pass the ball to a hot shooter (it actually may be beneficial to pass to a hot shooter, but only because good overall shooters are the ones most likely to go on a streak).

Jay Koehler and Caryn Conley (2003) published a study a few years ago that content analyzed TV announcer comments during NBA three-point shooting contests, held annually in conjunction with the all-star game. The main finding was that players’ shooting percentages immediately following TV announcers’ hot hand exclamations (e.g., “Legler is on fire”) were no different than their overall baseline shooting percentages, thus showing once again that the present was not predictive of the future. This paper can be obtained via Koehler's website, which is itself accessible through the links to other researchers' pages on the right-hand side of the present page.

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