10 Correlations That Are Not Causations

The Hot Hand and the Monkey's Paw
Superstitions take all forms in sports, like smooching your bowling ball. © Russell Underwood/Corbis

No discussion of streaks, magical thinking or false causation would be complete without a flip through the sports pages. Stellar sports seasons arise from such a mysterious interplay of factors -- natural ability, training, confidence, the occasional X factor -- that we imagine patterns in performance, even though studies repeatedly reject streak shooting and "successful" superstitions as anything more than imaginary.

The belief in streaks or slumps implies that success "causes" success and failure "causes" failure or, perhaps more reasonably, that variation in some common factor, such as confidence, causes both. But study after study fails to bear this out [sources: Gilovich et al.; Tversky and Gilovich]. The same holds true for superstitions, although that did not stop the Cleveland Indians' Kevin Rhomberg from refusing to make right turns while on the field, or prevent Ottawa Senators center Bruce Gardiner from dunking his hockey stick in the toilet to break the occasional slump [source: Trex].

The sophomore slump, too, typically arises from a too-good first year. Performance swings tend to even out in the long run, a phenomenon statisticians call regression toward the mean. In sports, this averaging out is aided by the opposition, which adjusts to counter the new player's successful skill set.

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