Learning typically involves a fairly standard feedback loop. You try something, you get feedback on how successful you were, you modify you behavior, and you get better. It’s known in psychological circles as reinforcement learning, and it’s without doubt one of the most effective ways for us to learn.
The science that underpins reinforcement learning is often of course performed under laboratory conditions, so there are accusations that it doesn’t accurately reflect real life. A study has however looked to apply the theory to a real world situation by exploring the role of feedback in a sporting context.
The sport in question was basketball, and the study looked specifically at the so called hot streaks players can go on when scoring baskets seems to come easily.
Tal Neiman and Yonatan Loewenstein at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem studied thousands of NBA matches to understand how previous shot success influenced future shot choices. They found significant evidence of reinforcement learning in action. Players that made a 3 point shot were much more likely to attempt another than those that missed their first shot.
Sadly for the players involved, past success was no indicator of future outcomes, and they were in fact less likely to score with their next shot if they had made their previous one. So they’re more likely to try, but less likely to succeed.
Lessons for the business world
So how does this provide lessons for the business world? The research essentially shows that the success of the shot was shaped by unpredictable forces and depended on situational details that are unlikely to be repeated. The location of the shot, the pressure from the defense, the period in the match and so on all played a major part in the outcome.
The business world can often be gripped by the cult of the guru, whereby prominent thinkers proclaim to have found the secret to success in this or that field. They make their career out of informing the rest of us how to go about replicating such success.
What this study tells us however is that whilst individuals can contribute somewhat to their own success, there is also a considerable amount of fortune involved, with their success likely to have involved many other things in addition to their own greatness.
By all means learn from what you and others have done in the past, but don’t forget to treat the present as a completely fresh set of circumstances that require the fresh thinking that quite probably contributed to your past success. You won’t achieve your own hot hand by taking short-cuts.