Some weeks, I am able to settle each matter that I mediate while other weeks, I am unable to settle even one. Like everyone else, I think in terms of “streaks”; that is, I am on a good “streak” or a bad “streak”.

An article in the June 26, 2014 edition of The New York Times Science section entitled “That’s So Random: Why We Persist in Seeing Streaks” by Carl Zimmer, advises that research has shown that there is no such thing as a “streak” (or, in basketball, a “hot hand”). It is all quite random and the result of pure chance.

One of the earliest studies was in the 1980’s by Thomas Gilovich, a psychologist at Cornell University who conducted a statistical analysis of the “hot hand” of basketball players who truly believed they were on a “hot streak” because they were not missing their shots. The statistical analysis showed that the lucky shots were truly random; the basketball players were operating under a “… general misconception of chance.” (Id.)

More recent studies indicate that this bias “….

[i]s a side effect of how our brains have evolved” (Id.) As Dr. Andreas Wilke, a psychologist at Clarkson University and one of the authors of the studies explains:

“Our idea is that the driving force of the hot hand phenomenon was our history of foraging,” said Dr. Wilke.

Our ancestors were constantly searching for food, either gathering plants or hunting animals. As they searched, they had to continually decide where to look next. The wrong choice could mean starvation.

Dr. Wilke argues that this threat led our ancestors to evolve some rules of thumb based on the fact that animals and plants aren’t scattered randomly across a landscape. Instead, they can be found in clumps.

That meant that if our ancestors picked up a fruit from the ground, they were likely to find more by looking nearby, rather than going somewhere else. As a result, they became very sensitive to these streaks. They were an indication that good fortune would keep coming.

On the other hand, if our ancestors kept looking in a place for food and found nothing, they could predict that another look wouldn’t yield anything to eat.

In the modern world, Dr. Wilke argues, we can’t get rid of this instinct to think that streaks will continue, even when we’re dealing with random patterns. (Id.)

In other studies, Dr. Wilke found that this same bias exists not only in American volunteers but in those living deep in the Amazon rain forest that hunt and forage for food. Thus, this bias extends beyond Western societies. (Id.)

Does it extend to other species as well? To determine this, Dr. Wilke together with Benjamin Y. Hayden, a neuroscientist at the University of Rochester, studied how monkeys make decisions:

So, he and Dr. Wilke developed a game for monkeys to play. In each round, the monkeys saw either a purple rectangle on the left side of a computer screen or a blue rectangle on the right. In order to get a reward, the monkeys had to guess which rectangle would appear next, directing their gaze to the left or right side of the screen.

The monkeys played thousands of rounds, developing a strategy to get the biggest reward they could. And their performance revealed that they have a hot hand bias in their decision-making, researchers said.

When streaks were common, the scientists found, the monkeys learned to get a high score. In other versions of the game, with fewer streaks, they did worse. They couldn’t help guessing that a new rectangle would be the same as the previous one. (Id.)

This study, while not definitive, does raise the “…possibility that foraging gave rise to the hot hand phenomenon millions of years ago.” (Id).

So, the next time I think that I am on some sort of “streak” because I am managing to settle the matters I am mediating, I will have to pinch myself and remember it is simply a question of “foraging” ! It is purely by random chance that I am succeeding!

… Just something to think about.


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