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Reciprocity on the Hardwood: Passing Patterns among Professional Basketball Players
Published: Friday, December 07, 2012
Author: Robb Willer et al.

by Robb Willer, Amanda Sharkey, Seth Frey

Past theory and research view reciprocal resource sharing as a fundamental building block of human societies. Most studies of reciprocity dynamics have focused on trading among individuals in laboratory settings. But if motivations to engage in these patterns of resource sharing are powerful, then we should observe forms of reciprocity even in highly structured group environments in which reciprocity does not clearly serve individual or group interests. To this end, we investigated whether patterns of reciprocity might emerge among teammates in professional basketball games. Using data from logs of National Basketball Association (NBA) games of the 2008–9 season, we estimated a series of conditional logistic regression models to test the impact of different factors on the probability that a given player would assist another player in scoring a basket. Our analysis found evidence for a direct reciprocity effect in which players who had “received” assists in the past tended to subsequently reciprocate their benefactors. Further, this tendency was time-dependent, with the probability of repayment highest soon after receiving an assist and declining as game time passed. We found no evidence for generalized reciprocity – a tendency to “pay forward” assists – and only very limited evidence for indirect reciprocity – a tendency to reward players who had sent others many assists. These findings highlight the power of reciprocity to shape human behavior, even in a setting characterized by extensive planning, division of labor, quick decision-making, and a focus on inter-group competition.
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