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See Inside February 2012

The Not-So-Hot Hand

Pro basketball players are much more likely to try another three-point shot after making one than after missing one



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Reggie Miller, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant. They’ve all gone on seemingly memorable shooting streaks. But past research has shown that the so-called hot hand is a myth, rooted in our tendency to see patterns where there are none.

Myth or no, the shooters still seem to think they’re on fire when statistics show they’re not. A recent study finds that professional basketball players put too much stock in the outcome of their last three-point shot. If they make a three-pointer, they are much more likely to try another one than if they had missed. The study, appearing in the journal Nature Communications, used game stats for hundreds of NBA and WNBA players. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.)

The Lakers’ Bryant was a prime example in his MVP season of 2007–2008. When Bryant made a three-pointer, he shot again from downtown nearly four times as often as he did following a missed three. But trying to ride a three-point streak is often bad strategy. Players actually tend to shoot a lower percentage after making shots than after missing them—once again sending the idea of the “hot hand” up in smoke.

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