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The hot hand fallacy fallacy rears its ugly ugly head

Funny how repeating the word “fallacy” reverses the meaning, but repeating the word “ugly” just intensifies it . . .

Anyway, Josh Miller points us to this article by what must be the last person on the planet to write uncritically about the so-called “hot hand fallacy.” It’s in the blog of the Society for Personal and Social Psychology:

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. . . .

Shoot . . . they should’ve done some googling:

– The wikipedia entry for the hot hand starts as follows:

The “hot hand” (also known as the “hot hand phenomenon” or “hot hand fallacy”) is the purported phenomenon that a person who experiences a successful outcome has a greater chance of success in further attempts. The concept is often applied to sports and skill-based tasks in general and originates from basketball, whereas a shooter is allegedly more likely to score if their previous attempts were successful, i.e. while having “hot hands”. While previous success at a task can indeed change the psychological attitude and subsequent success rate of a player, researchers for many years did not find evidence for a “hot hand” in practice, dismissing it as fallacious. However, later research questioned whether the belief is indeed a fallacy. Recent studies using modern statistical analysis show there is evidence for the “hot hand” in some sporting activities.

– Continuing on the first page of the google search for *hot hand fallacy*, we do find some uncritical statements of the so-called fallacy, but we also find this explainer from Jason Collins and this Scientific American article from Miller and Sanjurjo, “Momentum Isn’t Magic—Vindicating the Hot Hand with the Mathematics of Streaks.”

The hot hand argument is subtle—indeed, I got it wrong myself in a published paper (see pages 636-637 here), so I don’t fault the author of the above post for getting things wrong. Too bad he didn’t google it, though, just to get some other perspectives.

Unfortunately, the blog of the Society for Personal and Social Psychology does not seem to allow for comments, so no room there for anyone to make a correction. On the plus side, they do include us in their blogroll! So there’s that.

As the saying goes, the future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed. The Society for Personal and Social Psychology seems to be stuck in 1985 on this one, with Run DMC on the beatbox, the Cosby Show on TV, Oliver North sending weapons to the Ayatollah, and New Coke in every 7-11 in the country.


  1. Stuck in 1985 seems a bit harsh, as this was taken as common received wisdom much more recently, right?

    As for the grammar, of course that’s how it works—it’s compositional. A large part of my Ph.D. disseration was devoted to intensional adverbs and adjectives and imperfective verbs. A red truck is still a truck, as is a fire truck, but a fake truck isn’t a truck, nor is a toy truck. Similarly if you “crossed the street”, you’ve made it to the oher side; if you’re only “crossing the street”, there’s still time to turn around before it’s crossed. What’s really cool is negative polarity-sensitive expressions, of which there are only a handful in English. For example, it’s natural to say “They wouldn’t budge an inch” but “They budged an inch” is just wrong. The phrase “budge an inch” needs to show up inside a negation. For example, it’s also OK to say “Nobody budged an inch” but don’t try “Somebody budged an inch.”

    • Andrew says:


      Yes, stuck somewhere between 1985 and 2012.

    • This reminds me of “I couldn’t care less” (which is often misstated as “I could care less”).

      Also, in the negative polarity-sensitive vein, “He can’t light a candle to Auden,” but you wouldn’t say, “He can light a candle to Auden.”

      Also, “I couldn’t agree with you more,” but not “I could agree with you more.”

      Just one more: “She wouldn’t harm a fly” but not “She would harm a fly.”

      But how about the positive polarity-sensitive ones?

      For instance: “I could go on and on,” but not “I couldn’t go on and on.”

      “I could tell you some stories” but not “I couldn’t tell you some stories.”

      “He’s fit to be tied,” but not “He isn’t fit to be tied.”

      “Etcetera,” but not “not etcetera.”

    • Alex Godofsky says:

      Budging an inch makes perfect sense. You shifted over by an inch (metaphorically or literally). It doesn’t sound confusing or ungrammatical to me at all.

  2. Alex C. says:

    I haven’t been following this controversy at all, so maybe someone has already addressed this question. How big does the hot hand phenomenon have to be, before we can conclude that it can be reliably intuited by someone (like a coach, a fan, or a player) without the use of statistical techniques? So, for example, if a flipped coin comes up heads 51% and tails 49%, we probably wouldn’t expect a person to detect the bias simply the flipping the coin repeatedly (assuming that the person didn’t record the results of the trials). But if it came up heads 90% of the time, the bias would be fairly obvious. So what are the limits of detectability through simple observation and intuition? Maybe the hot hand exists, but perhaps it’s still irrational to believe in it based only on observation (without the use of statistical analysis).

    • Andrew says:


      A key point here is that belief in the hot hand is not simply based on observations of sequences of hits and misses. Sequences of hits and misses is very noisy. Belief in the hot hand is based on direct observation, including the feel of taking a shot, the accuracy of made and missed shots, the difficulty of shots attempted, etc. It might be irrational to believe in the hot hand just based on observed sequences of hits and misses, but I don’t think it’s irrational to believe in the hot hand given all the information that is available to us.

  3. Alex Godofsky says:

    I’m holding out for the hot hand fallacy fallacy fallacy, when we find out there really is no such effect.

  4. Jordan Anaya says:

    Kind of like how an unpopular opinion is usually a good opinion, truth hurts and all. But an unpopular unpopular opinion is a truly bad opinion. I’m not sure about an unpopular unpopular unpopular opinion.

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