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The Hot Hand: The Mystery and Science of Streaks

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For decades, statisticians, social scientists, psychologists, and economists (among them Nobel Prize winners) have spent massive amounts of precious time thinking about whether streaks actually exist. After all, a substantial number of decisions that we make in our everyday lives are quietly rooted in this one question: If something happened before, will it happen again? I For decades, statisticians, social scientists, psychologists, and economists (among them Nobel Prize winners) have spent massive amounts of precious time thinking about whether streaks actually exist. After all, a substantial number of decisions that we make in our everyday lives are quietly rooted in this one question: If something happened before, will it happen again? Is there such a thing as being in the zone? Can someone have a “hot hand”? Or is it simply a case of seeing patterns in randomness? Or, if streaks are possible, where can they be found? In The Hot Hand, Wall Street Journal reporter Ben Cohen offers an unfailingly entertaining and provocative investigation into these questions. He begins with how a $35,000 fine and a wild night in New York revived a debate about the existence of streaks that was several generations in the making. We learn how the ability to recognize and then bet against streaks turned a business school dropout named David Booth into a billionaire, and how the subconscious nature of streak-related bias can make the difference between life and death for asylum seekers. We see how previously unrecognized streaks hidden amidst archival data helped solve one of the most haunting mysteries of the twentieth century, the disappearance of Raoul Wallenberg. Cohen also exposes how streak-related incentives can be manipulated, from the five-syllable word that helped break arcade profit records to an arc of black paint that allowed Stephen Curry to transform from future junior high coach into the greatest three-point shooter in NBA history. Crucially, Cohen also explores why false recognition of nonexistent streaks can have cataclysmic results, particularly if you are a sugar beet farmer or the sort of gambler who likes to switch to black on the ninth spin of the roulette wheel.


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For decades, statisticians, social scientists, psychologists, and economists (among them Nobel Prize winners) have spent massive amounts of precious time thinking about whether streaks actually exist. After all, a substantial number of decisions that we make in our everyday lives are quietly rooted in this one question: If something happened before, will it happen again? I For decades, statisticians, social scientists, psychologists, and economists (among them Nobel Prize winners) have spent massive amounts of precious time thinking about whether streaks actually exist. After all, a substantial number of decisions that we make in our everyday lives are quietly rooted in this one question: If something happened before, will it happen again? Is there such a thing as being in the zone? Can someone have a “hot hand”? Or is it simply a case of seeing patterns in randomness? Or, if streaks are possible, where can they be found? In The Hot Hand, Wall Street Journal reporter Ben Cohen offers an unfailingly entertaining and provocative investigation into these questions. He begins with how a $35,000 fine and a wild night in New York revived a debate about the existence of streaks that was several generations in the making. We learn how the ability to recognize and then bet against streaks turned a business school dropout named David Booth into a billionaire, and how the subconscious nature of streak-related bias can make the difference between life and death for asylum seekers. We see how previously unrecognized streaks hidden amidst archival data helped solve one of the most haunting mysteries of the twentieth century, the disappearance of Raoul Wallenberg. Cohen also exposes how streak-related incentives can be manipulated, from the five-syllable word that helped break arcade profit records to an arc of black paint that allowed Stephen Curry to transform from future junior high coach into the greatest three-point shooter in NBA history. Crucially, Cohen also explores why false recognition of nonexistent streaks can have cataclysmic results, particularly if you are a sugar beet farmer or the sort of gambler who likes to switch to black on the ninth spin of the roulette wheel.

30 review for The Hot Hand: The Mystery and Science of Streaks

  1. 4 out of 5

    Mac

    Ben Cohen’s The Hot Hand taught me a lot, not all of it about the “The Mystery and Science of Streaks.” Here’s what I learned. A story written to entertain is not the same as a story written to persuade. The Hot Hand is full of interesting stories, most well told about a variety of fascinating people from many walks of life. The stories entertain, but some have nothing to do with the hot hand; some are so detailed, the relationship to the hot hand is lost, and some relate to the hot hand with onl Ben Cohen’s The Hot Hand taught me a lot, not all of it about the “The Mystery and Science of Streaks.” Here’s what I learned. A story written to entertain is not the same as a story written to persuade. The Hot Hand is full of interesting stories, most well told about a variety of fascinating people from many walks of life. The stories entertain, but some have nothing to do with the hot hand; some are so detailed, the relationship to the hot hand is lost, and some relate to the hot hand with only tangential connections. In this book, Cohen is trying to persuade, make an argument. He does do that, but his argument is lost among a broad collection of often irrelevant stories. Beware of the author who alternates back and forth (and back and forth) among several story lines. This intercutting technique can work if the various narratives ultimately weave a coherent whole, a fabric that fits together. However, The Hot Hand's stop-and-start narrative seems designed to withhold information merely as a tease. As a result, the structure left me frustrated, not begging for more. A clearly articulated premise or definition yields a focused argument and a focused book. After providing some useful insights into the hot hand, Cohen says (pp. 2-3), “But there doesn’t have to be a singular definition of the hot hand. You can simply tell when players are hot when you see them ablaze.” Though this definition is vague, at least it implies a streak is involved. When you see perhaps a basketball player “ablaze,” that suggests a series of successful shots. However, Cohen often discusses the likelihood of making shot two after shot one; certainly not a streak. There’s also an extensive analysis on three-shot sequences (actually coin flips) to prove a math fallacy. These sections, on sequences of two or three, hardly seem like a streak where someone is “ablaze.” To summarize, the book provides a lot of math on the subsets of streaks, math that somehow seems separate from the mystery of something lengthy. Cohen’s open-ended definition leads to a wide range of examples. He describes Shakespeare’s hot hand during a prolific period… Rebecca Clarke’s inability to have a hot streak with her sonatas due to discrimination against women at the time…a farmer’s bumper crop…an auction for the rules of basketball… and the gambler’s fallacy. After all, Cohen says (p.2), “The hot hand exists in nearly every industry and touches nearly every person on earth.” My response: Intriguing idea, but it's so much of a stretch, it leads to loss of focus. So I learned a lot from The Hot Hand, and I feel better informed from reading the book. That said, many of the lessons were about writing nonfiction, not about the topic. Actually, there is a contradiction here. Cohen has done extensive, thoughtful research. His work is carefully supported with “An Author’s Note on Sources,” extensive endnotes, and a 15-page bibliography. The Hot Hand is a thorough piece of writing. Unfortunately, the end result doesn’t reflect the effort. To conclude with a petty comment, The Hot Hand left me cold.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Amanda

    Maybe it's my fault for overestimating how interested I was in finding out if the hot hand is real. I don't understand why so much time and money was spent trying to determine if the hot hand existed or not. I don't understand why the book's timeline had to be so scattered, or why some of the stories were included. The writing was fine, besides that, and maybe to someone who is into the hot hand more than me, would enjoy it more.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Lee Woodruff

    Is there truth or science behind a “running streak” of good luck, talent, winning or creativity? I love the genre that tackles issues or questions combining human psychology, data, trends and storytelling. Cohen’s WSJ reporter background means he takes a compelling detective’s journey using disparate case studies. The book’s chapters range from a Russian prison to Steph Curry on the Warrior’s basketball court, Wall Street and the Amazon jungle, to name just a few. The outcome? Streaks, formerly Is there truth or science behind a “running streak” of good luck, talent, winning or creativity? I love the genre that tackles issues or questions combining human psychology, data, trends and storytelling. Cohen’s WSJ reporter background means he takes a compelling detective’s journey using disparate case studies. The book’s chapters range from a Russian prison to Steph Curry on the Warrior’s basketball court, Wall Street and the Amazon jungle, to name just a few. The outcome? Streaks, formerly debunked by scholars and mathematicians both can and can’t be cultivated. Fans of Michael Lewis and Malcolm Gladwell will devour this one

  4. 4 out of 5

    Nav S

    I was excited to read this book because I'm a huge basketball fan and also because I've experienced "the hot hand" phenomenon couple of times myself while playing basketball, even though I'm not a pro by any means. The book started off great, but it kind of went off the rails the further it went along. The author presented some interesting ideas and examples, but I feel that there were many times where the author was "reaching" with his examples to prove his point, especially his example regardin I was excited to read this book because I'm a huge basketball fan and also because I've experienced "the hot hand" phenomenon couple of times myself while playing basketball, even though I'm not a pro by any means. The book started off great, but it kind of went off the rails the further it went along. The author presented some interesting ideas and examples, but I feel that there were many times where the author was "reaching" with his examples to prove his point, especially his example regarding Shakespeare and the plague. That being said, my biggest problem with the book is the complete mishandling of explaining the hot hand when it comes to basketball. Stephen Curry might be the greatest shooter of all time, but he's not the poster child of "The Hot Hand" phenomenon. That distinction belongs to his teammate and arguably the second best shooter of all time, Klay Thompson. If someone asked you to prove The Hot Hand and you were only allowed to present one piece of evidence, you'd use this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5nyBp... On January 23, 2015, Klay Thompson scored 37 points in a SINGLE QUARTER against the Sacramento Kings by himself. He took shots after shots which he had no business of making, but all of them went down. He was simply unstoppable during that quarter or as Ben Cohen describes it in the book: "He was on FIRE." You have to see it to believe it. Or what about the game against Indiana Pacers where Klay Thompson scored 60 points while dribbling the ball only 11 times and holding the ball for a sum total of only 90 seconds? Overall, I kind of liked this book, but I hope that we'd get something better than this in the future to explain the hot hand phenomenon.

  5. 5 out of 5

    MIKE Watkins Jr.

    Summary: I would recommend this for two reasons. 1. It's very well written (the author has some serious writing chops). 2. As far as I know there aren't really any other books that cover this subject extensively like this one does. But at the end of the day this book needed more focus and overall this work contains some notable flaws. Pros: 1. The book really dives into data/evidence collected on streaks. It also provides anecdotal evidence through big time names like Steph curry and Shakespeare Summary: I would recommend this for two reasons. 1. It's very well written (the author has some serious writing chops). 2. As far as I know there aren't really any other books that cover this subject extensively like this one does. But at the end of the day this book needed more focus and overall this work contains some notable flaws. Pros: 1. The book really dives into data/evidence collected on streaks. It also provides anecdotal evidence through big time names like Steph curry and Shakespeare to showcase instances where the "hot hand" presented itself and what caused it to present itself. 2. The author is an amazing writer and showcases a talent for being able to break down sports, but also break down history, farming, poetry, and economics. Even though this book is a 3/5 for me...the author is a 4/5 talent in terms of his "writing chops" I hope he creates another book sometime in the future. 3. The author does a good job of connecting people from each example to other examples. For example a group of researchers who manifest a theory on the hot hand end up running into a prominent researcher mentioned extensively earlier in the book. The author also does a good job of showing a common denominator in a love for basketball among the various people featured in the. Book Cons: 1. The last half of the book or so focuses more so on the various stories/examples then it does the hot hand itself. We learn more about Al-Saffar, Toby Moskowitz, and Carolyn Stein then then we do about "the hot hand". Which is odd cause the first half is spot on in regards to staying on topic and getting to the point. Again I enjoyed each and every person that the book focused on because Ben Cohen managed to obtain so much information on each person, and has very impressive "writing chops". But at the end of the day I read this to learn about "the hot hand" not Raoul Wallenberg's brave exploits in Europe. 2. The transitions are bad... like the author jumps from example to example... which is fine but it does it in a rough way, or the author decides to shift to another example at an odd moment, a moment that isn't meant to be a "pause moment".

  6. 5 out of 5

    Brendan

    The story of "the hot hand," the belief that multiple successes can lead to basketball or others (composers, artists, film directors) having periods where they excel above their normal performance level, is an interesting one, but not sufficient for a whole book, or at least not this one. In The Hot Hand, Cohen describes how the hot hand was first debunked as a fallacy of the human psyche inclined to notice false order in randomness, before it was eventually "de-debunked" by researchers who reco The story of "the hot hand," the belief that multiple successes can lead to basketball or others (composers, artists, film directors) having periods where they excel above their normal performance level, is an interesting one, but not sufficient for a whole book, or at least not this one. In The Hot Hand, Cohen describes how the hot hand was first debunked as a fallacy of the human psyche inclined to notice false order in randomness, before it was eventually "de-debunked" by researchers who reconsidered the data. This main narrative is interwoven with "hot hand" stories about Steph Curry, movie director Rob Reiner and an obscure female composer, as well as the story of creator of the video game NBA Jam, which so well evokes the idea of the hot hand in its gameplay. In addition, the book includes stories about a sugar beet farmer, Raoul Wallenberg, a refugee Iraqi artist and a lost Van Gogh painting that have nothing to do with the Hot Hand. Rather, they deal with psychological bias and data collection and analysis. While these points loosely tie to the studies on the Hot Hand, the stories themselves are too far afield to connect, and seem like content needed to get the book up to 300 pages. The book is well written, and Cohen is likable and makes the people in the stories likable. It's also an impressively researched book with a huge bibliography and end notes that comprehensively support every chapter.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Dave

    I enjoyed reading this book (it is a breezy read) but I am still not sure what it was about. It is very loosely organized around some new ideas about probability and performance, namely that hot streaks may actually exist. But the subject matter is SO diverse (Steph Curry, Van Gogh forgeries, hedge fund performance, Shakespeare and the plague) and the arguments are so general that I can not recall any point that Cohen truly made. I found each anecdote to be interesting--Cohen is a good writer and I enjoyed reading this book (it is a breezy read) but I am still not sure what it was about. It is very loosely organized around some new ideas about probability and performance, namely that hot streaks may actually exist. But the subject matter is SO diverse (Steph Curry, Van Gogh forgeries, hedge fund performance, Shakespeare and the plague) and the arguments are so general that I can not recall any point that Cohen truly made. I found each anecdote to be interesting--Cohen is a good writer and he has collected some great stories--but I found the book to be devoid of answers as to why any of the anecdotes were important, much less what brought them all together in this curious book. It may be the case that the ideal reader of this book is someone much smarter than I am who can figure out the patterns and conclusions that Cohen merely hints at. But I cannot remember being as disappointed at reaching the conclusion of a book as I was with this one. "Is that it??"

  8. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    The book is named for "the hot hand", a phenomenon where a person suddenly goes on a hot-streak. In basketball, this is when a player makes shot after shot. In creative endeavors, it's the time period where an individual produces many incredible works. These spurts of success are "the collision of talent, circumstance, and even a little bit of luck", though circumstance matters most, according to the author. The hot hand fallacy describes the way people think that a successful outcome increases t The book is named for "the hot hand", a phenomenon where a person suddenly goes on a hot-streak. In basketball, this is when a player makes shot after shot. In creative endeavors, it's the time period where an individual produces many incredible works. These spurts of success are "the collision of talent, circumstance, and even a little bit of luck", though circumstance matters most, according to the author. The hot hand fallacy describes the way people think that a successful outcome increases the chance of success in future attempts. The most commonly discussed example is a hot hand in basketball. It is one of many cognitive biases that human brains have evolved to see patterns where there are none. The law of small numbers predicts that we infer too much from too little data, the gambler's fallacy describes how we think that a roulette wheel landing on red after red is less likely than landing on black after red, and we forget that randomness in the long run doesn't require randomness in the short term. The story of the hot hand fallacy is a classic tale of revolutions in science. 1) People hold a belief about the world. 2) Someone comes along with new data that disproves the commonly held belief. 3) People resist the new idea. 4) People accept the new idea. 5) Repeat. But this story has two revolutions. One that began in the 1980s that introduced the hot hand fallacy and ultimately convinced people that the hot hand did NOT exist in basketball. And one in the early 2010s that questioned the biases of earlier statistical analyses, suggesting that the hot hand might actually exist in basketball.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Batgirl13

    This book was fascinating if a bit long. I really enjoyed books like Freakanomics and The World is Flat and this book feels like it's in those veins. There were a couple anecdotes that went in directions where it was easy to lose the original p0int of the book and served more as distraction than proof. I also felt a bit of whiplash with whether or not streaks are real. There is a lot of detailed information about basketball, but even if you don't enjoy sports history, there are enough other fiel This book was fascinating if a bit long. I really enjoyed books like Freakanomics and The World is Flat and this book feels like it's in those veins. There were a couple anecdotes that went in directions where it was easy to lose the original p0int of the book and served more as distraction than proof. I also felt a bit of whiplash with whether or not streaks are real. There is a lot of detailed information about basketball, but even if you don't enjoy sports history, there are enough other fields and stories pulled in to keep you interested in the subject at hand (prisoner of war, plague and Shakespeare, beet farming, etc). Was able to read an advanced reader from work and it was fun to be able to recommend the book when it was released to the public. Give this book a shot and come to your own conclusions about the existence of streaks and the hot hand.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Roosevelt

    Fascinating anecdotes interweave into a great read. I was initially intrigued in this book because I thought this streak-concept hasn’t been well explored in literature. I appreciated the expansive amount of research the author put together in order to present his case. Gathering such a wide range amount of categories such as stories from sport, literature, cinema, world history, and even war histories, takes an immense level dedication to this subject and I had to applaud that fact. Although the Fascinating anecdotes interweave into a great read. I was initially intrigued in this book because I thought this streak-concept hasn’t been well explored in literature. I appreciated the expansive amount of research the author put together in order to present his case. Gathering such a wide range amount of categories such as stories from sport, literature, cinema, world history, and even war histories, takes an immense level dedication to this subject and I had to applaud that fact. Although there were a few instances it felt as if the puzzles he was attempting to piece together was excessively forced along with a redundant amount of dispensable repeats. My curiosity to the subject started to run dry by the middle of the book, concocted with an increasingly amount of disorientating at the lack of well intented transitions in between cases.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Tawney

    I received this book compliments of Custom House through the Goodreads giveaway program. I rate this 3 1/2 stars Overall this book was informative and enjoyable. Ben Cohen's enthusiasm for the subject is obvious in both his writing and the amount of research he has done on the subject of Streaks. (Although I still can't quite get my mind around the idea that 2 whatevers - goals, heads, tails - constitute a streak, but that's the way the research goes.) The book starts well going from one story lin I received this book compliments of Custom House through the Goodreads giveaway program. I rate this 3 1/2 stars Overall this book was informative and enjoyable. Ben Cohen's enthusiasm for the subject is obvious in both his writing and the amount of research he has done on the subject of Streaks. (Although I still can't quite get my mind around the idea that 2 whatevers - goals, heads, tails - constitute a streak, but that's the way the research goes.) The book starts well going from one story line to another then blending to a satisifying conclusion. The rest of the book seems based on this same structure, but it is more confusing and seems less focused. Cohen has a lot to explain and he does it well, but I'm still not sure if I can say I"ve ever really have had The Hot Hand.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Jesse Dougherty

    I was first drawn to this book because I love Ben Cohen's basketball coverage for the Wall Street Journal. I truly believe he is one of the most inventive sports writers in the industry, and remain very envious of his ability to find fresh and unique story angles on a such an overexposed league. But The Hot Hand went so far beyond basketball and sports, which is why I enjoyed it even more than I expected. It doesn't just delve deep into other topics — video games, Shakespeare and beet farming, a I was first drawn to this book because I love Ben Cohen's basketball coverage for the Wall Street Journal. I truly believe he is one of the most inventive sports writers in the industry, and remain very envious of his ability to find fresh and unique story angles on a such an overexposed league. But The Hot Hand went so far beyond basketball and sports, which is why I enjoyed it even more than I expected. It doesn't just delve deep into other topics — video games, Shakespeare and beet farming, among many others. It gets at some critical elements of human behavior, somehow explained through exacting detail in a way that is very digestible. If you're not a sports fan/reader of sports books, still consider this one. It's about a whole lot more.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Red

    This book tells a really interesting story about the understanding of The Hot Hand, primarily in basketball. It's written in an entertaining fashion, I'd read other books by Ben. The Hot Hand started as a great WSJ article by Ben that didn't need to be expanded into a book. Go read the WSJ article from 2015. 4 stars for the main thesis, downgraded a star for the chaff. This book tells a really interesting story about the understanding of The Hot Hand, primarily in basketball. It's written in an entertaining fashion, I'd read other books by Ben. The Hot Hand started as a great WSJ article by Ben that didn't need to be expanded into a book. Go read the WSJ article from 2015. 4 stars for the main thesis, downgraded a star for the chaff.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Robert P. Hoffman

    This is a masterpiece. The author is a wonderful storyteller, has crafted a seamless book, has a great sense of humor, and has a deep understanding of a variety of topics. His ability to connect the concept of the hot hand to different topics is impressive. His style of writing is so effective. For a writer less skilled it could have fallen apart but he strikes exactly the right tone. This is a book that will generate many benefits by rereading much of it.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Debra Lilly

    The subtitle of this book is “The Mystery and Science of Streaks.” The book focuses on sports as the clearest example of “hot” where we expect random outcomes. But it uses other contexts as well: investment strategy, hunting for prisoners of war, and even Shakespeare. I would put it in the same category as Freakonomics - a book that brings the fairly dry subject of statistical analysis to life in ordinary settings.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Thomas Terence

    Cohen takes a really interesting idea - whether the idea of the hot hand really exists - and tries his best to stretch it out to book length but to mixed results at best. There is a very interesting magazine article in here. I know this because the best part of the book - the rise of Steph Curry - was excerpted in New York Magazine about a month ago and it was great. https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/... Cohen takes a really interesting idea - whether the idea of the hot hand really exists - and tries his best to stretch it out to book length but to mixed results at best. There is a very interesting magazine article in here. I know this because the best part of the book - the rise of Steph Curry - was excerpted in New York Magazine about a month ago and it was great. https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/...

  17. 4 out of 5

    Robert Kotzen

    Four plus. A little disjointed at times but some fascinating vignettes on the conclusions that can be gleaned logically reading large sets of data. Reads like a mystery - you still don't really know if a hot hand can be logically explained until the end. Does help to have read Michael Lewis' The Undoing Project on the work of Kahneman and Tversky first.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Phil Simon

    Cohen is a gifted story teller, weaving together ostensibly disparate yarns in a way that few fiction writers can successfully pull off. His book is well researched, compelling, and, most of all, important. I come away with faith in the scientific method—something sadly under attack right now. Ben: Please write more books.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Sam

    I have extremely little interest in basketball or sports in general but this book sticks with me. What's funny is I couldn't even get through Michael Lewis's 'The Undoing Project'. But Cohen's breezy writing and ability to weave apparently disparate historical stories together kept me engaged.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Мирзаева Анна

    Liked iT!

  21. 5 out of 5

    Kent Winward

    The Hot Hand is a figment of our inability to perceive randomness. The Hot Hand is real. Or it is a little bit of both. Depends on if you are hot or not.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Wendy

    Interesting book, but a little slow. There was too much repeating, Although the topic was good, it didn't really hold my interest. I only read about 75% and then gave up on the book.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Sharon

    Interesting journalistic take on hot streaks. this was a goodreads giveaway

  24. 4 out of 5

    Mike

    I didn't see how all the stories tied into the hot hand theme. I do love the idea of Amos Tversky doing analysis on the shooting data for Dr. J and Chocolate Thunder (Darryl Dawkins). Go Sixers.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Denise Gray

    Good book. Interested information and fun to contemplate.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Matt Pozza

    An interesting and entertaining read. Think The Black Swan/Moneyball mashup.

  27. 5 out of 5

    James Hendrickson

    This was a fun read. No real new information in here but a lot of fun stories nicely interwoven.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Melissa

    Great. Well written. I highly recommend this book.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Tim Mohr

  30. 5 out of 5

    Chaitanyaa From Teatime Reading

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