Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Gimme Five: How Physical Touch Might Bust Your Bracket

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March Madness is upon us again! This is my favorite time of year, because it is time for (arguably) the best tournament in all of sports: the NCAA basketball tournament. It’s reason enough for me to miss two days of work just to watch basketball. Every year people write about the many work hours lost to this tournament, and I have definitely contributed my share. There aren’t too many sporting events where the drama is as thick as it is during the NCAA tournament: Here you have college student/athletes, some are playing their last basketball game before they join the workforce, and some are attempting to etch their names in the history books. Whatever the case, the tournament games bring the best out of teams and the outcomes are equal parts unpredictable and exciting as a result.

Despite the unpredictable nature of the tournament, every year we try to make predictions by filling out our NCAA tournament brackets. I watch a lot of basketball throughout the year, I’ve also coached basketball in the past (posting a slightly troubling 3-19 career coaching record as a high school coach). Despite my basketball experience, I predict games in this tournament about as well as someone who has never watched basketball.

And maybe that’s because I haven’t been looking in the right place until recently…

Basketball is a game where teams thrive on cooperation. Defensively, teams that work together can overcome individual deficiencies. Offensively, teams that work together will share the ball more, and will take (and make) easier shots as a result. The great Duke basketball coach, Mike Kryzyzweski, said it best, when he said “A basketball team is like the five fingers on your hand. If you can get them all together, you have a fist. That's how I want you to play.”

Given the importance of cooperation in basketball, Dacher Keltner, Cassy Huang, and I set out to try to understand whether we could determine how well teams cooperate with each other, just by watching live basketball games. In particular, we wondered how teammates would signal cooperation to each other, and whether this signal would predict actual wins and losses during the season.

We reasoned that physical touch was likely to be the best signal of cooperation in these team settings. A wealth of research supports this view. Even the briefest physical touches—high fives, hugs, or fist bumps—can communicate a wide range of emotions, and can do so more quickly and accurately than words. Before they learn to speak, infants use touch to communicate with their parents. In particular, touch communicates trust and cooperation: For example, teachers who touch students get them to volunteer more readily in classroom settings. As a second example, a touch on the arm by an experimenter led participants to give more money to an experiment partner—a sign of cooperative intent—compared to participants who were not touched (Kurzban, 2001).

Knowing this background, we (actually Cassy) painstakingly watched basketball games during the 2008-2009 professional basketball season, cataloguing the duration of every high five, butt slap, and chest bump that players laid on their teammates. We only watched games during the first month of the season in games that were competitive (the final score separated the two teams by 9 points or less).

We expected teams that touched more would win more across the entire season, and that is precisely what we found: Teams like the Lakers and Celtics who touched the most, also tended to perform the best over the course of the entire season, and in the games immediately following the game coded for touch. Moreover, this effect occurred even when we accounted for how well teams performed during the early season game coded for touch, preseason expectations for the performance of each team, and team salaries. From this data, we reasoned that touch is an important indicator of teammates’ cooperation with each other, and is therefore, an important barometer of success in a cooperation-based game like basketball.

Turning to this year’s NCAA tournament, our research suggests that it is a good idea to think beyond your favorite team’s three point field goal percentage, points in the paint, deflections, or RPI (although it probably wouldn’t hurt to think about these things). As you are making your predictions, watch some game film, and take a look at how teammates interact on the court. When a player on your favorite team falls down, how many of his teammates come to pick him up? When the ball goes out-of-bounds, do players on your favorite team form a huddle? How often are players giving each other hugs or butt slaps? These behaviors may be the difference between a Final Four bid, and an early exit from the tournament. In any case, I’ll be watching the drama unfold!

Some Interesting Links on Touch and Performance in Basketball:
ION PSYCH - A colleague of mine has also written about this topic on her blog!
ESPN TrueHoop: Henry Abbott, my all-time favorite stats guy wrote about it too!

Are you using touch at work to improve your team's performance? Let us know how it is going in the comments section!


Kraus MW, Huang C, & Keltner D (2010). Tactile communication, cooperation, and performance: an ethological study of the NBA. Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 10 (5), 745-9 PMID: 21038960

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