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January 07, 2005
Foul Play or Fooled By Randomness?
Slate has an absolutely brilliant piece about using neuroscience to freak out opposing player free-throw shooters.
Last week, I wrote to the NBA owner I deemed most likely to consider applying the scientific method to free-throw shooting, Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks. I told Cuban that the assumption that waving balloons wildly will produce the biggest distraction is just plain wrong. Given how the brain perceives motion, randomly moving balloons aren't very off-putting. When you see a lot of little objects moving crazily back and forth, all the different motion signals that get sent to the brain cancel each other out. In the mind of a free-throw shooter, a crowd of people waving wiggle sticks looks like a snowy TV screen. This sort of white noise might make it harder to see the rim, but the stats show that isn't a big deal for the pros.
But what if the waving balloons didn't cancel each other out? If fans behind the backboard waved their balloons from side to side in unison, opposing players would perceive a field of background motion. When we see a moving background, we tend to assume that we're the ones moving and that the background is staying put. If everything on my desk suddenly drifted to the right, I would probably assume that my chair had rolled to the left. And if I were at the free-throw line as the world drifted to the right, my shooting motion would automatically compensate for what I perceived to be my own motion to the left. David Whitney, a visual psychophysicist at the University of California-Irvine, recently described this phenomenon in the lab. The results, published in Nature ("The influence of visual motion on fast reaching movements to a stationary object"), showed that a field of background motion can bias hand movements in the direction of that motion.
Did it work? Read the whole thing to find out.
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