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.