Malcolm Gladwell and the mystery of free-throw shooting

Here’s an interesting podcast in which Malcolm Gladwell confronts one of the fundamental mysteries of Western civilization: Why don’t basketball players shoot free-throws underhanded?  The evidence is incontrovertible that this method produces better outcomes than the overhand method.  And yet almost no one uses it.

This is of particular interest to me because, growing up, shot free-throws underhanded — I guess because my father did.  And I was good!  In the 7th grade, I was elected captain of my gym team, basically because I could shoot free-throws better than anyone else.  But this came to an end when the gym teacher noticed what I was doing and ordered me to cut it out.  So I did.  I was also pretty good shooting overhand, but nowhere near as good as I was underhand; it’s just harder.

Gladwell tells the story in his typical entertaining fashion, focusing on Wilt Chamberlain’s legendary 100-point game, which would never have happened if he hadn’t been going through a phase where he was shooting free throws underhand.  But then later, he changed back to the overhand method he was so bad at, because it made him “feel like a sissy.”  Wilt Chamberlain felt like a sissy!  Gladwell also brings in other standard examples from sports of people who can’t do the right thing even though they know better, like coaches who insist on punting when all the data says they should go for it on fourth down.

But, as usual, Gladwell’s explanation for this is, well, not that interesting, at least to me.  He uses the same theory of “thresholds” that he has also advanced to explain riots and school shootings.  Some people are go-it-aloners who don’t need to feel like they’re part of a crowd; for free-throw shooting, this would be Rick Barry, who didn’t care that no one else shot underhanded.  He knew he was right, and so that’s what he did.  He had a low “threshold”.  Most people have much higher thresholds; they can’t bring themselves to shoot free throws underhand or go for it on fourth down unless everyone else is doing it.  If everyone is doing the wrong thing, they will do the wrong thing–this might be the lesson of the Milgram experiments and others that emphasize the importance of situation in predicting human behavior.

Gladwell may be right; I don’t know.  But I’d have liked him to dig a little deeper.  Why would someone like Wilt Chamberlain feel compelled to be a conformist when it came to free-throw shooting, despite being as out of the ordinary as one could imagine in so many other ways?  What causes someone to have a different threshold?  No explanation is given.

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