Dr LIC's Krazy SyEnce Korner
Every now and then social scientists find something interesting to say about our hallowed league, but it is usually within moments that the finding goes viral, and is swallowed, chewed, and spit out by every sports geek like me on the internet. In this korner, I will attempt to present findings on the NBA "before they go mainstream," presenting the most up to date research that illuminates the inner workings of the Association we hold so dearly.
The first entry comes courtesy of psychologists Graeme Haynes of University of Western Ontario and Thomas Gilovich (who did the original research on the "hot hand") of Cornell University, who recently published a paper called "Ball Don't Lie: How Inequity Aversion Can Undermine Performance" in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology*. The paper formally tests a cognitive explanation for the hypothesis frequently put forth by Rasheed Wallace that says that a player will often miss free throws after getting a foul that he does not deserve. The explanation that Haynes and Gilovich point to is a phenomenon known as inequity aversion, the idea that people prefer to avoid unfairness and injustice (even if sometimes it is not in their best interest to do so).
A study from earlier this year demonstrated inequity aversion by setting up a scenario in which two individuals were given unequal portions of money at the outset of the study ($50 versus $0). This created inequality such that one subject was a high-pay subject and one subject was the low-pay subject. Each subject then had their brains scanned while looking at slides that showed further monetary transfers either to oneself (self transfers) or to the other person in the study (other transfers). What happened was that high-pay subjects rated other transfers to be more positive whereas low-pay subjects rated self transfers to be more positive, both demonstrating that they enjoyed transfers that narrowed the money disparity between the two. Furthermore, brain activation mirrored these explicit evaluations--regions involved in the experience of reward corresponded to subjects evaluations of the transfers, suggesting that people felt that transfers that reduced inequality were more rewarding. The takeaway: People dislike inequality, even when they are in a position of higher gains.
Now back to hoops. Haynes and Gilovich examined whether inequality aversion plays out in the NBA by looking at whether players miss more free throws after an obviously incorrect call. The authors watched 102 games from the 2007-2008 season and noted any instance of an obviously incorrect call. This was always done BEFORE the fouled player went to the free throw line, and yielded a total of 77 identified obviously incorrect calls. Four additional coders examined the calls and showed substantial agreement about their incorrect nature. Then, the authors calculated free throw percentage for the first shot after these incorrect calls, which turned out to be a whoppingly low 53.2%, substantially lower than the league average for the season on first-shot free throws, 73.6% (the league average was 77.8% for second-shot free throws). This suggests inequity aversion--players felt significantly less comfortable making a free throw after receiving an unjust foul call.
Home versus away status did not matter, the player's normal free throw percentage did not matter, but what did matter was whether the team of the player shooting the free throw was currently ahead in the game. The inequity aversion effect emerged significantly more often when the team of the player shooting the free throw was ahead, suggesting that players aren't so concerned with fairness that they will miss while their team needs the points. Self-interest takes over at that point.
The main question for this finding--which the authors raise as well--is about the extent to which this inequity aversion occurs on a conscious level. If you asked players whether they are intentionally missing shots after getting bogus calls, 99% of them would obviously say no. Another question I have is what are the circumstances in sports where players are completely ok with inequity. The past year has seen soccer referees, baseball umpires, and NBA refs absolutely crucified for their shoddy work...and the beneficiaries of this ineptitude are usually are the only not complaining.
*Abstract as follows:
Previous research has found that people are often averse to inequity, even when it works
to their own advantage. The present research extends previous demonstrations of inequity
aversion by examining how it plays out in a real-world context in which self-interest
motivations and competitive pressures are substantial. National Basketball Association
games were examined and instances of obviously incorrect foul calls were identified.
Players were found to make a substantially lower percentage of the foul shots they were
awarded as a result of incorrect calls, indicating that they were troubled by the inequity.
This drop-off in performance was only observed when the shooter’s team was ahead,
highlighting the trade-off between the two conflicting motives of self-interest (the desire
to win) and inequity aversion.