Is the Hot Hand Phenomenon a Real Thing?

If you are a basketball fan, the term “hot hand” probably sounds familiar to you. It is the notion that a player is more likely to score after making the previous shot, than if he had missed the previous shot.

Research by Jonathan Brycki from Pinnacle into the three-point contest held at the NBA All-Star match from 2015 to 2018 revealed something very interesting. On average, a player hit 14% more shots following a make than they did when shooting after a miss.


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It was one of the few semblances of ‘proof’ that suggests the Hot Hand may not be a fallacy. The term was discussed from a 1985 paper by Gilovich, Vallone, and Tversky. The researchers discovered that 91% of basketball fans believed a player was more likely to score a shot if he has scored with his previous attempt.

However, it has been assumed over the years that the Hot Hand was a fallacy. According to the study, the notion that a player could be on a “hot” streak was spurious nonsense. Has this stopped bettors from making wagers based on the theory of the Hot Hand? Absolutely not!

How Does the Hot Hand Relate to Racing Betting?

I have written about Gambler’s Fallacy in the past. It is the idea that the longer the losing streak, the more likely you are to win your next bet. It is a fallacy because each bet is an independent event. In roulette, for example, you are no more likely to win on red after four consecutive spins on black, than you are after four successive spins on red.

The Hot Hand phenomenon is the opposite of Gambler’s Fallacy. It is the belief that a winning streak will continue. The more consecutive bets you win, the more likely it is that your next bet will also be successful.

In many ways, it makes sense that it is a fallacy because bettors don’t take into account the circumstances of the game when the shots were taken, nor do they analyze the difficulty of the shot. In soccer, expected goals data looks at the perceived difficulty of a player’s shot and calculates a percentage chance of scoring based on it.

For instance, Lionel Messi may have a 76% chance of scoring a free shot from 12 yards out. Meanwhile, his teammate Luis Suarez could have a 22% chance of scoring a volley from the edge of the penalty area.

The same rings true in basketball. An NBA star should score a high percentage of unpressured shots close to the basket. Shooting threes when an opponent is jumping in your face is a much harder task. These scenarios are seldom taken into account when attempting to analyze hot shooting streaks.

A study by Bocskocsky, Stein, and Ezekowitz, published in Social Science Research Network (SSRN) in 2014, analyzed 83,000 shots from the 2012-13 NBA season. According to the research, a player on a “hot streak” was up to 2.4% more likely to hit a shot than a player not on a streak.

In this case, a maximum boost of 2.4% doesn’t seem to be massive. However, the trio did take into account the fact that confident players may take on harder shots which would dilute any Hot Hand effect. The study also took into account factors such as the shot clock and the location of defenders.

It is an interesting study, but it only comprises a single season in the NBA. This isn’t nearly enough to suggest the Hot Hand is real, but too many bettors disagree and make bets based on the perception of a hot streak.

Carry on Winning

A study by Xu and Harvey, published in the journal Cognition in May 2014, claimed that it proved the Hot Hand really exists in betting. The duo analyzed over 565,000 bets made by 776 online bettors in 2010 and analyzed every winning and losing streak to a maximum of six bets. The study found that gamblers who won were more likely to win their next bet. Indeed, the longer the streak, the more likely it was that the subsequent bet won.

Overall, winning streaks increased the probability of winning the next bet. In contrast, losing streaks decreased the likelihood of winning the next wager. Those who won six in a row also won an incredible 76% of their seventh bets! In contrast, those who lost six consecutive bets only won 23% of their seventh bets.

Proof that the Hot Hand exists? Not really! It turns out that bettors on winning streaks became conservative and made shorter odds bets which naturally had a higher chance of winning. Those on losing streaks did the opposite and tried to win it all back on longer odds, low chance of winning, bets.

What’s interesting is that while hot streak basketball players perhaps took more difficult shots, hot streak bettors played it safe. According to research by Sundali and Croson, published in Penn Libraries in 2006, casino players who succumb to Gambler’s Fallacy are also likely to fall prey to Hot Hand.

It seems as if people in this category increase bets in the midst of a losing streak in the belief that they will win. They also increase stakes while on a winning streak in the belief that their “skill” makes it more likely for them to win! In other words, it is skill when we win and bad luck when we lose! No wonder bookmakers do so well.

Final Thoughts on the Hot Hand Phenomenon

The Xu and Harvey study was a real eye-opener and caused me to reflect on my betting career. During poor spells, I tended to focus on longer odds bets and missed several good wagers because I either deliberately ignored them, or else I simply didn’t see them!

In contrast, during winning spells, I appeared to have complete confidence in everything I did. I also gravitated towards lower risk propositions, and shockingly, my win rate remained high, as did my confidence!

Is it accurate to say that the Hot Hand is, in fact, a fallacy? Research to date would say yes. There is no magical formula that allows a winning streak to continue. Instead, it is all in the mind.

The lesson here is not to let a winning or losing streak influence future bets. If you wager on low-risk propositions, your win percentage will naturally be higher over time. Whether it is a profitable strategy is another matter entirely. If nothing else, research has shown that psychology remains the most powerful tool in a gambler’s arsenal.

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