I first heard this episode on NPR one night when I was driving home from work. Once I pulled into my parking spot, I could not get myself to exit the car I had been stuck in for the past hour sitting in traffic. Instead, I sat there glued to my seat enjoying every second of this episode. As the months went by, I would catch myself thinking about this episode as only having explored the world of underhanded free throws in the game of basketball. However, when I decided to revisit the podcast, I was pleasantly surprised to find much more depth and complexity to the question this podcast raises: why do good ideas fail to spread?
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Wilt Scores 100
The episode begins on March 2nd, 1962, a night that many remember as one of the greatest nights in professional sports. This is the night that Wilt Chamberlain scored a ridiculous 100 points in a single game. Apart from that record, Wilt also set a record for making the most free throws, 28.
Previous to that season, Wilt shot ~40% from the line shooting overhanded. However, for the ’61-’62 season, Wilt switches it up and begins to shoot his free throws underhanded. As a result, his percentage jumps up over 60%.
Master of the Granny-Shot
At this point, we are introduced to Rick Barry, one of the greatest free throw shooters the NBA has ever seen. Rick shot all of his free throws underhanded and was Wilt’s best example for changing his form. But here is where things start to get interesting because Wilt eventually stopped shooting underhanded, bringing his free throw percentage to plummet as a result.
Rick would come across this indescribable phenomenon throughout his career. He’d prove to players that they were better at making free throws using the underhanded method, yet, when it came down to it, none of them were every willing to actually try it in a game.
And it’s this idea that sits at the foundation of this episode…
Why Do People Choose Against What is Right?
Macolm Gladwell uses this example of Wilt Chamberlain refusing to do what’s right as evidence of a sociological premise known as the “Threshold Models of Collective Behavior” proposed by Mark Granovetter.
The theory suggests that people’s behavior is highly influenced by the threshold they have that urges them to be part of a bigger collective. Mark goes on to label people with a threshold of zero as an instigator. These people do not need others to validate their choice to do one thing over another. In this sense, Rick Barry is an instigator since he was the only basketball player shooting their free throws underhanded.
People with higher thresholds than zero require others to be doing what it is they are contemplating before they too can do the same. Mark’s theory, and the podcast, use the “riot” example to encapsulate this idea. A person who has never thought to riot might one day find themselves walking down a street when all of a sudden, a group of 20 people are breaking windows and looting stores. The person looks on and walks the other way. Take that same situation but make it 100 people rioting and instead of walking away, the person joins the riot. The amount of people that it takes for someone to do something is their threshold. In this case, the person’s threshold was somewhere between 21-100 people. Once a threshold is met, the benefits of making a particular decision begin to outweigh the costs.
Thresholds vs Beliefs
The implication here is that people’s actions should not be entirely attributed to their beliefs. Even people joining the riot believe that rioting is wrong. It is their social surroundings, their threshold, that push them towards action.
What the NFL is Doing Wrong
After describing Mark’s theory, Malcolm goes on to produce more examples of people choosing to go against what is right, but this time in the NFL.
The first example looks at a report by Richard Thaler that proves scientifically that players chosen in the later rounds of the NFL draft provide their teams with more value than the highest picks of the 1st round. Thaler implies that teams should trade away their 1st round draft picks for multiple picks in the 2nd and 3rd rounds. This, he says, is the key to building a winning football team. After consulting with various teams, Thaler watched the NFL draft and noticed that not a single franchise took his advice and continued to pay astronomical prices for those players ranked higher in the 1st round.
In a 2nd example, we are presented with David Romer’s findings that going for it on 4th down was actually, more often than not, the right thing to do rather than punting or settling for a field goal. By doing so, teams could expect to win an average of 2 more games a season. Did anyone in the NFL take his advice? No.
This is because NFL owners and coaches have too high of a threshold for Thaler or Romer to be the only driving force to get them to do something they wouldn’t otherwise do.
The podcast ends with an excerpt taken from Wilt Chamberlain’s auto biography in which he confesses to not shooting underhand because it made him feel like a “sissy” despite knowing it was wrong for him to shoot overhanded. Even with Wilt believing that shooting underhanded was better, he still chose to do the opposite.
So, next time you catch yourself doing something you’d thought you’d never do, take a moment to reflect on why you are doing it? It might be that all you needed to persuade you was more people doing the same thing. I really like this idea as it gives me the inspiration to get out and surround myself with people that are accomplished in the same areas I wish to be. If I want something that I cannot imagine myself doing, it might be that I am surrounding myself with the wrong people and I need to move. Now, that’s something to think about!