The Frontal Cortex

Touch and Basketball

A forthcoming paper by Michael Kraus and Dacher Keltner at UC-Berkeley investigates the correlation between “tactile communication” and success in the NBA. In essence, the paper demonstrates that “touchier” teams – and this includes everything from pats on the ass to high-fives – are also more likely to win. (The two touchiest teams during the 2008-2009 season were the Lakers and the Celtics, while the touchiest player was Kevin Garnett, followed by Chris Bosh.) Here’s the abstract:

Tactile communication, or physical touch, promotes cooperation between people, communicates distinct emotions, soothes in times of stress, and is used to make inferences of warmth and trust. Based on this conceptual analysis, we predicted that in group competition, physical touch would predict increases in both individual and group performance. In an ethological study, we coded the touch behavior of players from the National Basketball Association (NBA) during the 2008- 2009 regular season. Consistent with hypotheses, early season touch predicted greater performance for individuals as well as teams later in the season. Additional analyses confirmed that touch predicted improved performance even after accounting for player status, preseason expectations, and early season performance. Moreover, coded cooperative behaviors between teammates explained the association between touch and team performance.

Obviously, there are a ton of confounding variables here, the most obvious one being the possibility that more successful teams touch more because they’re successful. (After all, players don’t dispense supportive touches after a missed shot.) The scientists attempted to control for these variables by using a sophisticated regression model that accounted for team salary and pre-season expectations. (They also measured success in terms of offensive efficiency, and not just wins or losses.) Even when these factors were taken into account, the correlation persisted: teams with touchier players played better.

Kraus and Keltner argue that the presence of group touching is inseparable from group cooperation, and that increased cooperation leads to better performance on the court. The scientists note, however, that this study might have limited applicability to other workplaces: “Basketball has evolved its own language of touch (fist bumps, leaping shoulder bumps) that quite obviously will not generalize to other group settings, for example in work organizations or schools.” (I love seeing “fist bumps” in a peer-reviewed journal article.) While that may be the case, I’d suggest that successful workplaces engage in a related kind of interaction, in which people are forced to interact with each other, both literally and figuratively. Maybe we’re talking to a colleague at the bathroom sink, or eating lunch at the same cafeteria table, but those are the kinds of “touches” that lead, over time, to better team performance. (I’ve got a hunch, for instance, that more successful labs have more crowded coffee rooms.) The same logic might also explain why people who have never worked together before rarely create successful Broadway plays: they’re like NBA teams that don’t know each well enough to exchange fist-bumps. Or why denser cities, which promote more random interactions, are also more innovative. The point is that the the most productive groups share a certain intimacy, which allows them to fully benefit from their different skill sets.

Thanks to Randy Young for the tip.

Comments

  1. #1 royniles
    April 15, 2010

    That’s a touch too much information – for those inclined to touch too much that is.

  2. #2 troy
    April 15, 2010

    And as a shy, non-touchy/feely guy it would make sense that I would naturally gravitate to individual sports rather than team centered ones. Hummm.

  3. #3 Jim
    April 15, 2010

    I think that “touch” in this instance shows deeper communication and trust than what is given credit. I found it fascinating the Chris Bosh was the second “touchiest” player in the league, but the Raptors have played so poorly over the season. Looking at their play, it is usually a severe lack of communication on defence.
    I would suggest that what is important isn’t the touch in the NBA, so much as a deeper emotional connection with the team (which is manifest in touch).

  4. #4 NeuroK├╝z
    April 15, 2010

    Well the Raptors had a very streaky season this year, at times winning a lot and at other times (toward the end of the season) losing a lot. It would be interesting to see if Chris Bosh was more touchy when the Raptors were winning. Indeed Bosh was injured during part of their losing streak. If the touch effect is real, though, it would probably require that more than just one team member be touchy.

  5. #5 zachrd99
    April 15, 2010

    I guess I’m still confused as to why their assuming touch causes success and not the other way around? Maybe I need to read the original.

    Thanks for the post though. Provacitive either way.

  6. #6 blink
    April 15, 2010

    The study is interesting, but while the authors describe their coding methods and p-values in excruciating detail, they seem rather uninterested in discussing the *magnitude* of the effect. That is dissatisfying. (Incidentally, “pat on the ass” is not one of the 12 touch behaviors the authors coded.)

  7. #7 anon
    April 16, 2010

    Ever seen girls volleyball? They “touch up” between every play. With such constant tactile contact on every team, i wonder if the “the touchiest teams are the most successful” postulate applies to their leagues.

  8. #8 Kevin Vogelsang
    April 18, 2010

    It is much more likely that high levels of touch are indicative of closer-knit teams. The act of touching itself doesn’t better performance, the closeness does. And teams that come closer together, are going to have better performance.

    So the question is really does touch lead to closeness? It probably does re-enforce, but likely isn’t the source.

  9. #9 ADD
    April 19, 2010

    I’m with zachrd99, because I’d assume that all of the high fiving was a result of a team’s success, not the cause.

  10. #10 Steven
    April 19, 2010

    An interesting check of this would be to follow the performance of a player traded (or from year to year maybe) during the season from one team to another with very different levels of physical touching. Of course, this would have to be done with several players, and as such, might take a lot of time to get enough data.

    This type of follow up might shed some light on whether high performance results in more touching, or more touching results in higher performance.

  11. #11 stripey_cat
    April 25, 2010

    Kevin @8 – I’m thinking that touch within a group probably actually helps strengthen social bonds, rather than just ebing a manifestation of an existing bond.

  12. #12 jim waddell
    May 6, 2010

    Who cares about the nba? 80% of the players couldn’t run the register at a convenience store.

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