Some basketball players really like touching their teammates.
Of course, when I say ‘touch,’ I mean gestures like high fives and half hugs. No matter how macho they may seem, basketball players touch their teammates in all sorts of ways during games. But is there a point to all of that fist bumping and chest punching?
Well, touch is good for a lot of things (as anyone who’s enjoyed a bear hug or a Swedish massage could tell you), but it’s especially important in team contexts because it’s associated with trust and cooperation. This has been shown all over the psychological literature (e.g. Kurzban, 2001; Wieselquist, Rusbult, Foster, & Agnew, 1999). As a college basketball fan (as I discussed last week), I can tell you that one of the reasons why most college basketball fans prefer it to the NBA is summed up by the following quote: “In the NBA, players play for the name on the back of the jersey. In college, the players play for the name on the front.”1 College basketball is all about the teams: the Kentuckys, the Kansases, the Dukes, the UNCs. NBA basketball is really more about the individual players: the Kobes and the LeBrons.2 So this begs the question – how much does cooperation and trust really matter in a context like NBA basketball, where the focus is set so squarely on the superstars?
In recent research that I only wish I had thought to do first (who wouldn’t want to spend hours watching basketball games and call it research?), psychologists at UC-Berkeley measured how much NBA players touched each other during one game each within the first 2 months of the 2008-09 regular season and studied whether or not it predicted how well the teams would do throughout the season.
As it turns out, the more the teammates touched each other, the better that team did – they scored more points, allowed fewer points to be scored against them, shared the ball more, were more efficient, and simply won more often (Kraus et al., 2010). In fact, touch still predicted how well a team would do even after the investigators accounted for plenty of other possible explanations – like preseason expectations from NBA experts, optimism, early season performance, or team salaries. Not only that, but touching seemed to have an impact on the individual players as well – the more a player touched his teammates, the better he did individually. Importantly, the relationship between touch and performance has a clear explanation – cooperation. The more teammates touch each other, the more they talk to each other during games, pass the ball to less-guarded teammates, help their teammates during the game, and rely on their teammates at the expense of their individual performance – in other words, the more they cooperate. And the more the team cooperates, the more they win (Kraus et al., 2010).3
I guess I have to re-think the validity of that quote about the difference between NBA and college basketball. Sure, the LeBrons and Kobes might dominate the NBA basketball scene – but it’s a little short-sighted to claim that NBA players only care about their individual performances. Even if they do, it certainly begrudges them to throw a little cooperative effort in their teammates’ directions.
Besides – everyone loves a good, old-fashioned fist bump.
1.This line is pretty common so it’s hard to attribute it to any one source, but for one link where it’s quoted and discussed, see here.
2.For the four college teams listed, I just picked the top four teams listed here. As much as it killed me to acknowledge UNC, I bit the bullet to be a fair blogger. Also, feel free to argue with me about any points I’ve made regarding the differences between NBA and college ball in the comments section. I never turn down an opportunity to debate basketball.
3.It’s important to note that this research describes a correlation – not a causation. Touch correlates with better performance – it could also be the case that better performance causes teammates to touch each other more, or there could be other factors that both increase touch and improve performance. However, the scientists measured touch at the beginning of the season and correlated it with performance throughout the entire season, which makes it less likely that better performance leads to more touching. Also, they controlled for the most compelling ‘confounding variables’ and the correlation remained intact. So, even though nothing ‘causal’ can officially be claimed, the authors do a pretty good job of strengthening their arguments.
1. This study has already made its way through the blogosphere; some examples of other posts that I found covering this study are Robert Sutton’s post in PsychologyToday, Stephanie Pappas’ post at LiveScience, and some coverage over at ESPN, though I am sure there are more that I am missing. Be sure to check out these links for different viewpoints!
2. In the interest of full disclosure, I am currently collaborating with the first author of this paper on some preliminary research, though it is in no way related to his work on touch and/or basketball.
This is the second in a series of posts related to basketball and/or sports psychology in honor of NCAA March Madness (Here is the first). Stay tuned for the remaining posts throughout this month!
Kraus MW, Huang C, & Keltner D (2010). Tactile communication, cooperation, and performance: an ethological study of the NBA. Emotion, 10 (5), 745-9 PMID: 21038960
Kurzban, R. (2001). The social psychophysics of cooperation: Nonverbal communication in a public goods game. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 25, 241-259
Wieselquist, J., Rusbult, C., Foster, C., & Agnew, C. (1999). Commitment, pro-relationship behavior, and trust in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77 (5), 942-966 DOI: 10.1037//0022-35220.127.116.112