People often believe that clutch players step up when it counts and perform better under stress. But economist Dan Ariely studied how NBA basketball players performed in the playoffs and found that "clutch" players scoring performance as a percentage was no different in the final five minutes of the game vs. any random five minutes of the game.
Ariely was interviewed by Marketplace host Ky Ryssdal:
Ariely: So first of all we asked people if they believed that there are clutch players, and people believe that there are clutch players. People also agree on who the clutch players are in the NBA, so everything seems fine. And when we look at how many points these people who are called clutch players score in the last five minutes of the game, compared to a randomly chosen five minutes of the game, they actually score better.
Ryssdal: So then the money that they get is money well spent by the team, yes?
Ariely: Well, that's not clear yet. Because remember that even if they get more points, there's two ways to get more points. One is to increase your percentage scoring, and the other one is just to try more. So we looked at their performance, not in terms of absolute scores but in terms of percentages. And what do you think happened now?
Ryssdal: I don't know. That's actually a good point. So LeBron James and Kobe Bryant and those guys, are they actually better percentage wise when the pressure is on? I don't actually know, that's a good question.
Ariely: And the answer is no. The answer is no. Their percentage keep the same. I mean they're all good players, by the way, they're the best players there are. But they don't seem to have any clutchness. And this goes both for field goals, and for free throws.
The key is that while the performance was no better, it was no different despite the high stakes. Consistency matters.
And then because they are consistent, other players on the team get them the ball more.
Ariely: And you can think about there's a group coordination mechanism, where these guys believe they are better, the coach believes they are better, the team believes they are better, so they get the ball more frequently, and they try more. They just don't succeed more. But there's kinda of an arrangement that says that they'll succeed more.
The story is available on July 6th edition of Marketplace, at about 18:07.