Imagine you are watching an NBA basketball game, and you are asked to bet on the outcome of the game. Are you likely to put your money on the team with the player who appears to be unstoppable—the one who just made his last three shots and is just about to shoot again? What if that same player goes for the shot and misses, but the referee mistakenly calls a foul when there was none and allows the player a free throw. Would you expect the player to make the shot?
You might answer yes to both questions. After all, everyone knows about the phenomenon of the basketball player who’s on a shooting streak. Who wouldn’t bet on a team with a player like that? And as for the free throw, a great player has a reasonably high chance of making it, doesn’t he?
What’s Your Judgment Quotient?
Not so fast, says Thomas Gilovich, Psychology. You just might be forming your decisions based on a misevaluation of the evidence, which can lead to faulty judgments and dubious beliefs. Gilovich should know. For more than 30 years he has studied how people form judgments, reach conclusions, and take actions—and often, he’s found, our mistaken judgments cause us to make decisions that may even be counter to what we believe we really want.
Take the “hot hand” theory in sports. One of Gilovich’s earliest research projects in the 1980s revolved around this belief in basketball that a player who has made a basket has a much better chance of making the next basket, and that the player is now on a “hot” streak. The belief leads other players to pass the ball to the one who is perceived as being “in the zone.” Gilovich teamed up with Amos Tversky and Robert Vallone at Stanford University to show the belief was a fallacy and stemmed from players’ and fans’ faulty intuitions about randomness. “It was a controversial conclusion,” Gilovich says. “People wanted to believe in the hot hand, but evidence shows it’s not true.”
More recently, Gilovich looked at inequity aversion—the human preference for fairness—again using basketball as his research arena. He showed that players make significantly fewer free throws when they’ve been awarded the free throw erroneously by a referee mistakenly calling a foul. “They know the free throw is undeserved,” Gilovich says. This goes against their need for equity even in a real world situation like an NBA basketball game where there is high pressure to act in their own self-interest. He adds that the actual reasons for their poor shooting in this situation are still unknown. It could be the players are distracted by thoughts of fairness, which causes them to shoot less accurately. Or it could be they are consciously or unconsciously balancing things out. More research remains to get at the root of the phenomenon.
Looking for Patterns
But how do studies about basketball translate to the rest of our lives? There are many day-to-day applications. For instance, with the hot hand research, Gilovich showed that people are not able to evaluate randomness correctly. We are primed to look for patterns, and to see patterns when none actually exist. In every day life, this misbelief can have all kinds of consequences. For example, it may lead people to buy or sell stocks based on the belief that a company or a mutual fund manager is “hot.”
Much of Gilovich’s research falls under the emerging subdiscipline, behavioral economics. Cornell and Stanford University were at the forefront of developing this field, which is a blending of psychology and economics. “It’s part of a movement to create more realistic descriptive theories of economic behavior,” he explains. “The dominant economic model is fine as a prescriptive theory, but it doesn’t work as a descriptive account because it is based on the assumption that we are perfectly rational and entirely motivated by self interest, and we’re not.”
What Makes You Happy?
Lately, Gilovich has been making a stir with his newest area of research, which explores the idea that people derive more satisfaction from experiential purchases than from material ones—and that the anticipation of an experience brings higher levels of pleasure as well. Together with Matthew A. Killingsworth of the University of California at San Francisco and Cornell doctoral student Amit Kumar, Gilovich collaborated on a series of four studies that found people felt significantly more happiness, pleasantness, and excitement when waiting for an experience than when waiting to possess a material good.
“People often think spending money on an experience is not as wise an investment as spending it on a material possession,” Gilovich says. “They think the experience will come and go in a flash, and they’ll be left with little compared to owning an item. But in reality we remember experiences long afterward, while we soon become used to our possessions. At the same time, we also enjoy the anticipation of having an experience more than the anticipation of owning a possession.”
We are primed to look for patterns, and to see patterns when none actually exist.
The research study was published online in Psychological Science during the summer of 2014 and was well-publicized. It struck a chord because it fell in line with current thinking in many different areas of society, Gilovich says. Take urban planners, for instance. They are more concerned these days with smart growth—creating a rich, human environment—than with huge houses and highways that cut off neighborhoods from each other. “Planners are wise to develop the experiential infrastructure that makes these sorts of gratifying experiences easier—amenities like bike paths, hiking trails, accessible parks and beaches,” Gilovich says. “Younger people today are less interested in owning cars and living in suburban sprawl than their parents were. They want to live in urban environments where they can walk to restaurants and events, and they can talk with other people.”
In essence, experience makes them happy. And that, Gilovich says, leads to another question: What do we mean by happiness? He’s still working on that one.