Clutch players get in business

Dan Ariely


Kai Ryssdal: Tennis fans who happened to be up early were treated to a fabulous men's final at Wimbledon yesterday morning. Roger Federer beat Andy Roddick in a five-set classic. You might even call it a clutch performance. Even though Federer was the top seed, he still needed a long five sets to win his 15th -- and record -- Grand Slam title.

We use sports analogies like clutch performance all the time in everyday life. But behavioral economist Dan Ariely says sports really can teach us something about life outside arenas and ball parks.

DAN ARIELY: Here's a question for you: Do you know the term "clutch players?"

Ryssdal: Yeah, sure, you bet. People who make a shot, or make a play, or whatever, under immense pressure.

ARIELY: You know, lots of people believe in clutch players. People believe that there is these magical individuals who do better under stress. But the question is do they really exist? So what do you think?

Ryssdal: Well, I don't know but right about here, I'm going to guess you're going to tell me about a study you did because that's the way these conversation usually go.

ARIELY: That's right. 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.

Ryssdal: So it really seems like it's a perception thing, right? These guys are perceived to be better in the clutch, so we shovel the ball at them more, and hence more money, and then they actually do wind up scoring more points, but percentage-wise it's a wash.

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.

Ryssdal: Bring this back to the corporate world for me for a second. Let's say you've got a hot-shot lawyer in a law firm, or some mergers and acquisition specialist in a takeover company. Are they going to get the higher salary because they are perceived to be better at closing the deal or winning a conviction, and then get more money for that?

ARIELY: Yes, I think that there could be the same thing happening in the business world, where we bring people in. We think that they are particularly good at performing under stress, that they are particularly good at the closing moment, the important points. And even if there's no evidence for it, the fact that we all agree on it, could actually give these people more chances, and they could score more points business-wise, even if their performance doesn't truly increase.

Ryssdal: At some point, though, Dan, don't even clutch players hit a cold streak, whether it's in the business world, or on the court or on the playing field, and then their clutchness factor kinda goes away?

ARIELY: It could happen. But here comes another human element, which is our faulty memory. And you can think to yourself about what do we remember from different basketball games. So for Michael Jordan, for example, there's a very famous shot that he made to win the championship, and people remember the shot very strongly. Very few people remember that the game before that, where they could have won the series, he missed the final shot. So there's not just a question of how good in clutchness are these players, but how faulty is our memory, and do we just remember the good ending.

Ryssdal: Dan Ariely teaches behavioral economics at Duke University. His book is called "Predictably Irrational." Dan, thanks a lot.

ARIELY: My pleasure.

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This study started with a hypothesis that specific players are clutch players. So all it could prove is that these guys are not clutch player, but it was not set up to prove that there are no clutch players. Honestly, I would not have guess that Kobe and Labron would be candidate. These are the consistent players, who score at high percentage all 40 minutes long. it is a good winning strategy to let them shoot at the last 5 minutes when the game is on the line. To find clutch players, i would expect that the definition would be - players who score below team average most of the time, and score higher then either their own average or even higher than team average, in the last 5 minutes of close games (dont count games that are decided earlier and their last 5 minutes are garbage time). I would say that if you sweep NBA stats and dont find players to meet that definition then i would agree that there are no clutch players. If i would have to guess, I would guess that Robert Horry was one.

Ariely, I enjoyed this story. I would be interested to know if players that are NOT considered "clutch" maintained their performance level under high stress circumstances. I would bet they don't. I suspect that clutch players are "clutch" because they are consistent in all circumstances. But maybe I am "Predictably Irrational." Keep up the great work

I agree with the comment posted by Bob Maier above. The difference with clutch players is not that they do better under pressure than they normally do throughout the game; the difference is that they are LESS negatively impacted by the stress than others. When others would "choke" they are clutch. A clutch baseball or basketball player is similar to a professional sharpshooter, someone who can turn off the negative impacts of stress and perform as well under pressure as when not under pressure.

I usually enjoy your remarks, Dan, but this time you erred. There are clutch players and others who aren't. Baseball is filled with percentages, the most common is batting average. There are many definitions of clutch hitting, but for baseball, let's consider batting average with 2 outs and runners in scoring position. Let's compare lifetime batting average vs their lifetime clutch batting average, i.e. lifetime batting average with 2 outs and runners in scoring position. Ask any Yankee fan and they will say Derek Jeter is clutch. His numbers are .316 and .319 (barely better in the clutch). But you could expect most hitters to be lower in the clutch than overall because the other team sometimes uses a fresh pitcher or a better pitcher in that situation (and there's no sacrifice fly that discounts a fly out from your batting average.) Some other players:
Alex Rodriguez .305/.274
Johnny Damon .289/.246
Jorge Posada .277/.233
Robinson Cano .302/.241
Hideki Matsui .292/.251
Nick Swisher .243/.228
Melky Cabrera .270/.229
And someone new to the team to look forward to as a new clutch hitter:
Mark Teixeira .289/.295

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