A cold new twist in the delusion of the hot hand

May, 6, 2011
5/06/11
3:36
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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People insist on believing the hot hand is common -- evidence be damned!

It's consistent with something else researchers have uncovered about the human psyche: We often see patterns where, in fact, there is randomness.

I'll give you an example. (And if you're a backgammon player, I suspect I can even make you believe in it.)

My dad and I have played backgammon for about three decades. Our playing experience has been a nearly perfect model of randomness, in terms of rolling dice. For starters, each player normally gets his own set of dice. In addition, we have played with all kinds of different boards, all over the world. (Off the top of my head, we have played in Oregon, New Jersey, Ecuador, England, France, Italy, Nepal and on some planes, too.) The dice ain't rigged, in other words. I would bet my dog that some spy satellite that had tracked all the roles in all the games we have played would find just about perfect randomness. (Which would look like this.)

But -- that satellite would frequently catch my dad pointing out how oddly often it is that one player gets a certain roll the next player immediately rolls the very same thing.

The chances of a three and a four being followed by another three and a four are slim. And yet ... it happens a lot.

Now that I have told you that, I promise you'll notice it, and when you do, my dad will have infected your brain with the virus of seeing trends where they do not really exist.

Here's the deal: You'll only ever think about this when you want to confirm it. You'll play backgammon and roll and roll, game after game, and forget I ever mentioned it. Then it'll happen a few times here or there, and you'll think: Henry's dad was right. It's happening.

Never mind the fact that, when it didn't happen for ages, you had perfect proof that, in fact, my dad was wrong. This is not magic, but the same boring old randomness you'd expect from all those different dice being rolled in all those different conditions. My brain delights in discovering identical rolls in sequence -- ah ha! And yet, you'd need that spy satellite to really count up how often it didn't happen before you really call it supernatural or anything like it. 'Cause one thing that's for sure is that you didn't keep track or even notice all the times it didn't happen. (And another thing that's for sure is that if you do count up all those rolling dice, for long enough, you'll find it's not true. A thousand grad students have done this a zillion times before you. A good die is the very definition of random.)

In hoops this means that we see people make two shots and miss the third all the time. I know that's true, 'cause it has been counted. Look it up for yourself in the play-by-play data right here on ESPN.com if you'd like.

But indeed ... once in a while some dude hits two shots and then a third or a fourth. And the way we're wired, only then do we open up the "hot hand" evidence lockers in our heads.

Here's the new twist, however, to this old tale of what they call "confirmation bias." Why on earth, some researchers have been asked, would our brains have evolved to have this sophisticated way of misleading us? Why would we be literally designed to fool ourselves?

The new theory they have come up with is: Because we didn't evolve to discern truth. We evolved to win arguments. In other words, my dad's brain is prosecuting a case. It goes through reams and reams of data like a first year associate -- ignoring most everything looking for that little kernel of this or that which might sway judge and jury. Who cares those double threes were followed by a five and a six?

Then you find that one little thing and throw a party. A five and a six followed by a five and a six! This is just what you needed! Remember this, and bring it up when you need it! Who cares if it's true, it'll carry the day. It's more than enough evidence to win an argument and impress your friends.

And I guess, if we're getting all biological, the idea is that winning arguments then increases your ability to procreate, which is why we have been naturally selected to have this arguing skill. (But that's all kind of theoretical, okay? 'Cause I'm talking about my dad.)

The idea, I guess, is that we're entering a different era now, where there really are spy satellites, grad students, or assistant coaches counting and tracking all those things human brains gloss over, like missed shots and boring dice rolls. Nowadays, if you want to win that argument, you need more than cool observations and "ah ha" moments. You need a laptop, too.

Henry Abbott | email

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