Thursday, February 18, 2010

Day 7: On Streaks, Hot and Cold

In a brief aside in his The Invention Air, Steven Johnson argues (with respect to people who suddenly become exceptionally productive):
We are naturally inclined to see a hot hand here, some extra dose of inspiration that triggered the streak in the first place, but in fact the streak would just be an offshoot of that random distribution, no more magical than a repeated coin toss that every now and then turns up heads ten times in a row.
He builds on this with an example of statistical research in sports:
the fact that a player has just made a free throw makes him no more or less likely to sink the next one. (42)
I will grant Johnson his numbers. However, we could argue that made shots and the perception that made shots lead to more made shots must certainly affect other players (teammates and adversaries alike). I would like to know, for instance, that if the defense assumes a shooter is hot will they leave her teammates open for easy shots?

The "hot streak" is kin to the various superstitions one finds in sports, particularly baseball. I am sure that a wearing the same dirty socks for the entire playoffs itself does not affect the outcome (although I am sure that my standing with one foot in the kitchen and one foot in the living room won the Atlanta Brave the World Series in 1995 - and find a stat that disproves that, Mr. Johnson). However, I am also just as sure that washing those socks might vary well affect the performance of the superstitious player. That is, "real" effects can take various sometime unquantifiable forms (the placebo effect is invariably an effect).

This all (if you can believe it) leads me to John Shuster, the unfortunate skip of the American Curling Team who has now lost four straight matches on missed last shots. He is on one hell of an Olympic cold streak. And he is clearly shaken. Now, I don't know of any research on cold streaks (and I haven't looked that hard), but I assume, based on the Johnson's logic above, that missing a shot makes it no more likely one will miss the next one. But the cold streak strains the statistical argument against streaks even more. Whether it can be charted statistically, and what human behavior can be reliably charted statistically, things accumulate in the human mind. Statistics may have not have memories, but human beings certainly do. And those memories matter.

Shuster remembers each missed shot with each subsequent one, and those memories (emotional as they are) form a part of his decision-making process. He becomes like drivers who die in head on collisions after trying to steer back onto the road from the shoulder. This syncs up with arguments about high performing athletes who are said to be high performing precisely because they can forget previous mistakes (forgetting - repressing - isn't always a bad thing).

And we remember what other people have done. As I argue above, the perception of a hot streak could change defensive approaches. Anyone who watched downhill skier Lindsey Vonn win the gold could safely assume she benefited twice from the crash of the skier who followed her. The next competitor after the crash, who was the last and greatest threat to Vonn's gold medal, clearly played the mountain safer after a serious of crashes before her run.

The statistical argument downplays human memory and human frailty. However we describe the pattern after the fact, we must admit it only becomes a pattern after the fact. In the moment it is humans acting with bodies, memories, and the emotions they spawn. It isn't magic; it's human.

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