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In Sports, Winning Streaks Are Just Flukes

Winning streaks are engrained into our sports psyches, but are they actually a legitimate phenomoenon?

Photo: Tulane Public Relations

Think of the idioms of sports: they’re on a winning streak, they’re off to a flying start, they’re in full swing, they have the inside track. Winning streaks are engrained into our sports psyches, but are they actually a legitimate phenomoenon?

The Telegraph‘s Tom Chivers calls foul:

It makes intuitive sense to us: the idea that winning is a habit; that confidence is important in sports; that the more you win, the more you will continue to win. But it is, largely, a product of humanity’s inability to detect randomness – or, more accurately, our overeagerness to detect patterns.

Assume a player has won 4 games in a row, Chivers explains. Is he likely to win the fifth game? Nearly every fan and commentator would emphatically say yes. But if we rephrase his odds in a more statistical light:

 ”Is the sequence WWWW more or less likely than the sequence WWWL?” And it turns out it isn’t.

That’s not to say that every team has equal chances of winning. But a team that wins 60 percent of time will likely continue to win 60 percent of the time, regardless of their hot-handness or shooting boots. So why do we continue to believe in the notion of winning streaks?

At heart, it’s because humans are incredibly keen to detect patterns, in almost all forms. This is for a very simple reason: in general, a false positive is far less dangerous than a false negative. If our visual system detects a tiger’s face in the bushes, or an enemy holding a club in the shadows, which on closer inspection turns out to be a flower or a hatstand, that is far less of a problem than not spotting a real tiger or enemy.With number patterns, you can imagine something similar: if you see three cases of a disease in a local area, it might be a statistical fluke, or it might be a pattern of contagion. If you see a pattern and you’re wrong, it’s not as dangerous as not seeing a pattern and being wrong.

Luckily for our flawed perceptions, sports aren’t matters of life or death—though some fans may beg to differ.

More from Smithsonian.com:

The Top 10 Biggest Sports #Fails of All Time 

Man or Computer? Can You Tell the Difference?

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