End notes on Daniel Kahneman (and a connection to March Madness).  

I criticize; therefore I am.” – (what Descartes might have said if had lived today?)

Daniel Kahneman’s brilliant critiques of human reasoningexposing so many of our species’ cognitive limitations – might tempt the fainthearted to clam up. In today’s sometimes polarized, irritable, quick-to-carp world, who wants to subject themselves to any more criticism than necessary?

But Kahneman’s sustained body of published work tells us to do just the opposite. He clearly didn’t allow any self-doubt about his own thought processes to hold him back. He took pains to expose his thinking to rigorous review and feedback. Unsurprisingly, he came in for his share of criticism.

Criticism? Here is one overview giving the general flavor[1]. An excerpt:

Some have argued that his research suffers from issues such as small sample sizes, lack of reproducibility, and an overreliance on specific experimental paradigms. These criticisms have prompted scholars to reassess the value of Kahneman’s work and its implications for our understanding of human behavior.

One of the key criticisms of Kahneman’s work is that it may overstate the role of cognitive biases in decision-making. While it is undeniable that people often make irrational decisions due to biases such as anchoring or availability heuristic, critics argue that Kahneman’s emphasis on these biases may downplay the role of rational decision-making and deliberation. Furthermore, the reproducibility crisis in psychology has raised questions about the robustness of some of the key findings in “Thinking, Fast and Slow.”

Another area of criticism is Kahneman’s reliance on laboratory experiments to draw general conclusions about human behavior. Some argue that the artificial nature of these experiments may limit their external validity, and that real-world decision-making is far more complex and context-dependent than what can be captured in a controlled setting…

Which brings us to – wait for it – March Madness.

We’re currently heading into the weekend featuring the 2024 Final Four. Coincidentally in researching  Kahneman critiques, I came across this article by Joshua Miller and Adam Sanjurjo in THE CONVERSATION US & THE CONVERSATION dating back to 2017: Momentum Isn’t Magic—Vindicating the Hot Hand with the Mathematics of Streaks. This first excerpt provides some context:

Nearly every basketball player, coach or fan believes that some shooters have an uncanny tendency to experience the hot hand—also referred to as being “on fire,” “in the zone,” “in rhythm” or “unconscious.” The idea is that on occasion these players enter into a special state in which their ability to make shots is noticeably better than usual. When people see a streak, like Craig Hodges hitting 19 3-pointers in a row, or other exceptional performances, they typically attribute it to the hot hand[2].

Then the authors bring in a reference to Kahneman:

 However, if you go to the NCAA’s website, you’ll read that this intuition is incorrect—the hot hand does not exist. Belief in the hot hand is just a delusion that occurs because we as humans have a predisposition to see patterns in randomness; we see streakiness even though shooting data are essentially random. Indeed, this view has been held for the past 30 years among scientists who study judgment and decision-making. Even Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman affirmed this consensus: “The hot hand is a massive and widespread cognitive illusion.”

… and go on to rope in Tversky and other Kahneman colleagues:

In the landmark 1985 paper “The hot hand in basketball: On the misperception of random sequences,” psychologists Thomas Gilovich, Robert Vallone and Amos Tversky (GVT, for short) found that when studying basketball shooting data, the sequences of makes and misses are indistinguishable from the sequences of heads and tails one would expect to see from flipping a coin repeatedly.

Then rest of the article provides a nice reappraisal, and disputes these pure-chance claims.

That led me to a 2006 article by Bar-Elia, Avugosa, and Markus Raabb: Twenty years of ‘‘hot hand’’ research: Review and critique. Was reading along, minding my own business, when I came across this passage:

The phenomenon of the hot hand is known to everyone who plays or watches the game of basketball. After the player has a run of successful baskets, people tend to believe that he will be more likely to succeed with the next shot as well. This has a plausible causal explanation: When a player feels ‘‘hot’’, his confidence in his ability increases. He becomes relaxed and focused on performing the shots accurately. So, he ‘‘gets in a groove’’, such that success in further attempts becomes more likely (Hales, 1999). As Robert Hooke (1989) expressed it so well [emphasis added]: ‘‘In almost every competitive activity in which I’ve ever engaged (baseball, basketball, golf, tennis, even duplicate bridge), a little success generates in me a feeling of confidence which, as long as it lasts, makes me do better than usual. Even more obviously, a few failures can destroy this confidence, after which for a while I can’t do anything right’’ (p. 35). The reference is to his paper in the journal Chance (1989, Vol 2, number 4) published by the American Statistical Association. This issue also juxtaposed other papers on the topic, including this one:   The “Hot Hand”: Statistical Reality or Cognitive Illusion? by Amos Tversky and Thomas Gilovich.

Robert Hooke? My father, the statistician and sports fan! I remember his discussions of this subject in dinner conversation over the years but hadn’t paid it much mind. What a wonderful thing to stumble over this small connection of his work with Kahneman’s oeuvre. (The reference is to his paper in the journal Chance (1989, Vol 2, number 4) published by the American Statistical Association. This issue also juxtaposed other papers on the topic, including this one:   The “Hot Hand”: Statistical Reality or Cognitive Illusion? by Amos Tversky and Thomas Gilovich.)

A postscript in the coming LOTRW.  

[1] Googling “critiques of Kahneman” points to copious additional material. Anyone breaking new ground pays such a price. Case in point, another thinker: Milton Friedman. Years ago, a close economist friend shared with me that while in graduate school he at first believed his distinguished faculty members who were unanimously telling him Friedman was “an idiot.” Then he asked himself, “If Friedman is so far off-base, why are so many famous economists obsessively trying to prove him wrong? There must be something there!

[2] Want to see a “hot hand” – 2024 edition?  Consider Oakland’s journeyman ballplayer Jack Gohlke, who contributed ten three’s in Oakland’s upset of Kentucky (one short of records) in the tournament’s opening round. As you’ll find if you watch the video, only one of the ten shots is uncontested; the rest are off-balance, on-the-fly, in-your-face improvisations, some from well-behind the three-point line. In short, several of them are the type that if you take it and miss, your “hot hand” won’t save you; your “hot-under-the-collar” coach will bench you.

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One Response to End notes on Daniel Kahneman (and a connection to March Madness).  

  1. Dave Rodenhuis says:

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