Social Science

The Big Man Can't Shoot - Threshold Model

Podcast REVISIONIST HISTORY: ""The Big Man Can't Shoot" - S1 E3

This episode examines Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point game in 1962 and points out that Wilt (usually a terrible free throw shooter) dramatically improved his free throw performance in this game by using the underhand method (the “granny style” pioneered by Rick Barry in the NBA). Despite the dramatic improvement, Wilt goes back to his standard overhead method soon afterwards and sees his free throw percentage plummet. Why did Wilt go back and why did Barry persist? Gladwell points out that the “granny style” is considered silly or weird or weak by other basketball players. Even though the rational thing to do would be (like Barry) to adopt the more effective underhand method, players do not because they perceive it to be weird, weak and - most importantly, no one else is doing it.

This leads to a discussion of sociologist Granovetter’s threshold model: (from Wikipedia): “the “threshold” is “the number or proportion of others who must make one decision before a given actor does so”. It is necessary to emphasize the determinants of threshold. A threshold is different for individuals, and it may be influenced by many factors: social economic status, education, age, personality, etc. Further, Granovetter relates “threshold” with utility one gets from participating collective behavior or not, using the utility function, each individual will calculate his cost and benefit from undertaking an action. And situation may change the cost and benefit of the behavior, so threshold is situation-specific. The distribution of the thresholds determines the outcome of the aggregate behavior (for example, public opinion).” So Wilt had a high threshold for freethrow shooting style, meaning he needed to see lots of other players go underhand before he would switch. Barry had a lower threshold for this activity.

Here’s the Granovetter paper.

This problem extends into other fields like football where Thaler has shown how first round draft picks are consistently overvalued yet owners continue to trade up for them whenever possible.