Long before the days of mobile games and home consoles, people played arcade games. Classics like Pac-Man and Space Invaders changed pop culture but, without anyone even realizing it, another game was shaping how people would play basketball. That game was NBA Jam, developed by Mark Turmell in 1993.
The game followed the normal rules of basketball, at least until a player managed to score a few shots in a row. Then, something special happened. The player’s avatar would start to heat up until it was “on fire.” And the more a player scored, the higher chance he or she had of scoring again. According to Ben Cohen, a sports reporter for The Wall Street Journal and author of “The Hot Hand: The Mystery and Science of Streaks,” NBA Jam started an obsession with streaks - known as “the hot hand” in basketball - that changed how even professionals approach the game.
“Mark Turmell single-handedly brainwashed a generation of impressionable young minds into believing that there’s such a thing as the hot hand,” Cohen said. “Steph Curry happened to be one of them.”
Curry, the Golden State Warriors point guard, is famous for his hot hand, especially when it comes to three pointers. The hot hand and the feeling of invincibility that comes with it, Cohen said, helped to propel Curry to where he is today. But basketball is not the only place that Cohen saw evidence of the hot hand.
In the 1980s, filmmaker Rob Reiner was on a roll. As an up-and-coming director with one success under his belt and another on the way, Cohen said Reiner got the offer to make whatever film he wanted. But when he chose “The Princess Bride,” movie studio executives balked.
Many others had tried and failed to make the film and, according to Cohen, Reiner knew the only way to get the greenlight for his dream project was to get the book’s author, William Goldman, on board. Reiner showed Goldman his most recent films, hoping that their success would be enough to get the screenwriter on board — and it worked.
“‘The Princess Bride’ is now one of our most beloved cult classic films,” Cohen said, “but without the hot hand, it wouldn’t exist.”
Is the hot hand proven without a doubt? While Cohen thinks so, academics are a bit more divided. A 1985 study of the hot hand concluded that it only existed in people’s minds, but newer studies are starting to change even the original researchers’ minds. One looked at the simple act of flipping a coin and found that the probability of an event might not be what you expect. In fact, after flipping heads, a person actually has a 60% chance of flipping tails, not the 50% one would anticipate.
Cohen also highlighted a study in Nature looking at directors, artists and scientists, and how streaks impacted their career. According to Cohen, the researchers could pinpoint a person’s next best work just from the dates of their previous best works. This, Cohen says, is evidence that hot hands are real, although he concedes they are far from reliable or universal.
“It’s just silly to go out into the world and think there’s a hot hand in every industry, that every circumstance is ripe for taking advantage of a hot hand,” Cohen said. “It can burn you, it can backfire if you think that way.”
To Cohen, the thing that sets real hot hands apart is control. He uses gambling as an example, where players can feel as if they’re on a winning streak, when, in reality, it all comes down to luck. In the cases of Steph Curry, Rob Reiner, and even Einstein's miracle year, Cohen said, a person’s ability to control their skills was the key to their success.
But there are some professions that just aren’t streak-friendly, Cohen said. He interviewed one farmer that, despite his belief in the hot hand, said he would never rely on it.
“His industry doesn’t allow for a hot hand. He is at the mercy of something as random as the weather. He doesn’t have a lot he can control,” Cohen said. “So in farming as in investing, he found that he has to play the long game, control what he can control, and most important, believe in principles over patterns.”
Cohen said that to really take advantage of a hot hand, you have to be able to recognize it when it’s real, and use it to your advantage.
“I’ve felt it in my own career while writing,” Cohen said. “There are times in my life where I just feel like I’m on a roll, and it made me realize that I just have to keep working really hard that week. Because that feeling you can’t bottle doesn’t come along [often], and you have to strike when it does.”