Too much of a good thing is boring

America keeps getting richer, but it doesn’t seem to be making us happier. There is an epidemic of depression among the young, and suicide rates keep soaring to new highs. I’m going to argue that the main problem is the 3-point shot, which is a long shot in the game of basketball, for those who don’t follow sports. This is what’s making us unhappy. Obviously you’ll need to bear with me on this one.

The three point shot occurs from behind a line about 22 feet from the basket, which was added to spice up the game back around 1980.  For years, the shot was rarely used.  When I was 30 years old, the two most exciting plays in basketball were the 3-point shot and the slam dunk.  The successful completion of these shots gave you the same feeling as three cherries at the slot machine in Vegas.  But like an explanation point in literature, these two exciting shots lose much of their impact if overused.  And they are increasingly overused.

After the Golden State Warriors achieved great success by loading up on skilled three point shooters, other teams saw that this was the way to go.  The game was further “hacked” by the Houston Rockets, who realized that you could have one highly skilled player control the ball, and either drive to the basket or take a three pointer.  The other four would stand around at the three point line.  James Harden was too skilled to be guarded with one player, so he’d either score a layup at the basket, or, if defended with two players, he’d pass to an open teammate to shoot a three pointer.  Rinse and repeat.  I wouldn’t say that basketball became boring, but it’s much less interesting.

My team hired a new coach this year, who realized that the mediocre Milwaukee Bucks team from last year could become much better by adopting this approach, even though the Bucks are not particularly talented, except for one player.  I read that in November, the Milwaukee Bucks became the first team in NBA history to shoot over 60% from two point range for an entire month (excluding October, when few games are played.)  This is because Milwaukee figured that the optimal strategy was to either drive to the basket or shoot threes.  No “midrange” shots.  Their three point shooters are not particularly talented, but the odds favor that shot so strongly that the other team still must guard the 4 players at the three point line, and no one in the universe can guard Giannis close to the basket.  As a result, this season he’ll blow by the NBA record for slam dunks by a wide margin.  (For foreign readers, imagine they made the net in football (soccer) twice as large, and allowed players to use their hands–that’s the impact of the three point shot.)

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is the greatest basketball coach of all time, and he’s horrified by what’s happened to his sport as a result of the three point shot:

I hate it, but I always have,” Popovich said of the shot. “I’ve hated the three for 20 years. That’s why I make a joke all the time [and say] if we’re going to make it a different game, let’s have a four-point play. Because if everybody likes the three, they’ll really like the four. People will jump out of their seats if you have a five-point play. It will be great. There’s no basketball anymore, there’s no beauty in it. It’s pretty boring. But it is what it is and you need to work with it.”

His championship team from 5 years ago featured the most aesthetically beautiful style of play ever seen in any American team sport, deploying a wide range of approaches.  Now it’s nonstop drive to the basket and score, or toss it out for a three pointer, over and over and over.

Do you see what we did?  The NBA noted that three pointers were lots of fun for fans, and thought that increasing them 10-fold would increase the fun 10-fold.  But it didn’t happen.  It’s as if baseball moved the fences in 100 feet to have lots more home runs.

Or—and this is where I finally get around to explaining why we are so unhappy—as if you made it so that all our desires were right at our fingertips.  No more unpleasant surprises in foreign travel; you’ll surf the internet and know exactly what to expect before you leave home!  You can also use the internet to do research on your date, before going out with him or her.  No messy surprises. No more need to browse through an old bookstore; it’s all on Amazon.  No need to trek out to the movie theatre and wait expectantly for the new Star Wars, it’s all on your big HDTV.  Remember when eating at a Thai or sushi restaurant was a thrill?  Remember when it stopped being a thrill?  Remember why it stopped being a thrill?

Last night I saw Anthony Bourdain’s final episode on CNN.  He revisited the Lower East Side of New York, where he used to buy drugs when he was young.  By modern standards, the Lower East Side circa 1980 was a nightmarishly awful place, and yet he and the people that he interviewed longed for the wild and messy world they had lost.  He seemed like someone who had lost interest in the modern world.

I’m not a Luddite who is opposed to change, indeed there are lots of rule changes I’d like to see in sports—starting with no instant replays by referees. (Remember, it’s a zero sum game.)  But we need to be careful that we don’t assume that just because X is pleasurable, 10X will be 10 times as pleasurable.



18 Responses to “Too much of a good thing is boring”

  1. Gravatar of David Pinto David Pinto
    2. December 2018 at 16:53

    Did this happen to women when machines reduced the time they needed to work at home? I have heard that the washing machine was a great liberator of women. It gave them time for other things, and eventually housewives moved into the work force.

    The NFL is very good a changing rules to keep the game exciting. They change the distance between hash lines, how much defenders are allowed to hit the QB or interfere with a pass. They changed the on-side kick rules this season because success on that strategy was going way up.

    When I was young, dunking was not allowed in college basketball. Maybe for a while the NBA should eliminate both the dunk and the three point shot. Of course, now that this strategy is set, they will simply setup outside and shoot twos, which I believe was the Knicks strategy in the early 1970s.

  2. Gravatar of Matthias Goergens Matthias Goergens
    2. December 2018 at 17:00

    Who gets to win a game in sports is fixed sum, but of course, changing the rules can make a game more or less fun to play or watch (like you suggest). So I am not sure the zero / fixed sum nature is important?

  3. Gravatar of Steve Steve
    2. December 2018 at 17:04

    Everything you wrote is wrong. Bear with me on this one 😉

    Neither change nor progress by themselves are bad. Lack of travel surprises and boredom with sports are both irrelevant. You are making the mistake of the romantics. I used to hear complaints about astronomy ruining the mystery of star gazing, meteor showers ruining the serendipity of catching a shooting star. People are always upset when their youthful romances are reduced to simple explanations. It’s not the cause of unhappiness writ large. Loss of romance is simply called getting old.

    What does cause unhappiness? Two things: chemical changes in the brain, and social and spiritual deprivation (which arguably cause the former).

    What causes brain chemical changes? One is dopamine desensitization driven by repeated but unsatisfying fixes from technology and media. Another is serotonin shortages caused by slothful lifestyles. A third is chemical dependency problems causing permanent brain changes.

    As for social and spiritual deprivation, look to the Bowling Alone thesis, the Social Capital Project, and any number of other pieces of research. Excessive individualism is good for some people, but it deprives many others of a sense of purpose.

    Sure, perhaps “too much stuff” contributes to these two fundamental problems, but it is imprecise not to highlight the underlying mechanisms of chemistry and social isolation.

  4. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    2. December 2018 at 17:10


    my pop theory of life is that to some extent it needs to be a struggle. People are wired for it. There needs to be the curiosity, the seeking, the struggle, the overcoming. This is how most movies are scripted too. If there is no struggle, it has to be created: playing sports, playing games, starting businesses… and for most parts, people are actually doing that. The other thing of course is the dopamine spike you get from unexpected events, re-created in a crude form by our hand phone software designers with their endless push messages and the whole social media ecosystem as a whole. It works superficially but it replaces a much richer real experience with a cheaper simplified one that only gets you the basic hit. Fast food for the soul, so to speak.

    The major problem I see with he world, and the real reason why it is getting boring, is beyond just happiness overload or lack of struggle. It is the destruction of the unknown. You can craft games, but you can’t create adventure. Games have pre-set rules and pre-set environments, and adventure has neither. So you can’t just re-create the mystery of the unknown, the frontier if you will. For me at least, that’s what’s missing.

  5. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    2. December 2018 at 17:58

    David, The NFL is becoming so slow and boring it’s almost unwatchable. The stoppage of action for replays is especially frustrating.

    And the dunk is one of the most exciting plays in basketball. They should keep the dunk and get rid of the three point shot.

    Matthias, Yes, maybe zero sum was the wrong framing. My point is that replays are boring, and on average do not help fans of any particular team.

    Steve, As I understand it, the Bowling Alone hypothesis is basically that technology is now more interesting than people (often true) and that this allows us to be alone (also true.) But technology is like a drug, and is overused. I think that fits my theory of the internet, doesn’t it?

    mbka, That sounds about right to me. It’s hard for me to know how much of this is just a function of me aging, and how much is a function of society changing over time.

  6. Gravatar of Steve Steve
    2. December 2018 at 18:27

    “But technology is like a drug, and is overused”

    My disagreement is with the broadness of that statement. Using a word processor instead of pen and paper to write books does not make one depressed. Nor does using matlab in place of an abacus. General “overuse” does not imply addiction either. Too much exercise, or too much cuddling, will not cause addiction or depression. But specific technologies, like smartphone notifications, cause repeated dopamine hits that dull the pleasure centers, distract the mind, and possibly produce anxiety. Arguably the problem is too much media enabled by technology.

    I think the focus of Bowling Alone, and other unaffiliated but similar works, is the collapse of social connections. Maybe media and “stuff” is the cause, but the focus is on social institutions.

  7. Gravatar of Steve Steve
    2. December 2018 at 19:08

    I should have used the phrase “attention economy” which is what people debating tech addiction issues talk about.

  8. Gravatar of Michael Sandifer Michael Sandifer
    2. December 2018 at 22:21

    I lost interest in basketball a long time ago, but it seems the Rockets teams of the 90s helped carry basketball in the boring direction. Their simple inside/outside game with Olajuwon inside and all those great shooters outside was a less extreme version of what Golden State does.

    At least Olajuwon was fun to watch in the middle though. What a skill set! There were no weaknesses to his game.

  9. Gravatar of Benny Lava Benny Lava
    3. December 2018 at 04:21

    Basketball has always been a terribly boring sport.

    America has always been a dysfunctional place. Full of violence and grift. Today America is still as dysfunctional as ever. A land with no culture and no values other than money. No wonder people there are unhappy. What can they turn to? They have terrible relations with their family, they move so much they lose contact with friends, and their churches are morally bankrupt cesspools. I wouldn’t want to live there would you?

  10. Gravatar of Tom M Tom M
    3. December 2018 at 07:10

    If you think the 3 point shot is bad, focus on how terrible the freedom of movement rule will be…

    The political left has been pushing the idea that the pursuit of happiness should be the ultimate goal of individual, so that when individuals are unhappy- they believe it is a failure on their part.

    But happiness is a pointless goal, especially if you are constantly forced to compare yourself with other people. Happiness should be a welcomed side affect of other goals. Instead people should focus on comparing themselves in the present to themselves in the past and taking responsibility for the changes that occur to them. You create your own world. These aren’t even new concepts, every religion or culture has stories and mythology surrounding these ideas.

  11. Gravatar of Student Student
    3. December 2018 at 08:22

    Interesting… but for the record the Rockets offense was pinoneerd by Lebron James. Drive and kickout if doubled.

  12. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    3. December 2018 at 10:22

    Benny, Perhaps your comment is satirizing dumb anti-Americans. If not, you might reconsider this:

    “No wonder people there are unhappy.”

    Given that Americans are happier, on average, than Europeans or East Asians.

  13. Gravatar of Benny Lava Benny Lava
    3. December 2018 at 11:40

    Ah yes, America – the happiest place on earth! So noted Scott, I stand corrected.

  14. Gravatar of sean sean
    3. December 2018 at 11:52

    Basketball needs the 3 point shot. Otherwise it will turn into lane clogging big men.

    If anything shooters have become too efficient at shooting 3’s. They should move the 3 point shot farther away to lower percentages. Another option would be to change the math (would kill historical stats). Change the 2pt shot to 3 pts and the 3pt shot to 4 pts.

  15. Gravatar of ChacoKevy ChacoKevy
    4. December 2018 at 15:19

    I love the 3 point revolution. I love dunks, too. However, attacking the rim has the chance of (if not outright intent!) of drawing a whistle to go to the line. Free throws are boring. 3 point shots don’t often have a whistle. Players like Harden and Butler are the action stoppers that make me like basketball less in the same way that you cite in NFL games.
    But again, I like the 3 point ubiquity because it means you have a lot of off-ball movement. My favorite is the often cited elevator doors play.

  16. Gravatar of Weekend Reading: Which Yield Curve Really Matters? – TCNN: The Constitutional News Network Weekend Reading: Which Yield Curve Really Matters? – TCNN: The Constitutional News Network
    7. December 2018 at 13:39

    […] Too Much Of A Good Thing Is Boring by Scott Sumner via The Money Illusion […]

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    […] Too Much Of A Good Thing Is Boring by Scott Sumner via The Money Illusion […]

  18. Gravatar of John Trainor John Trainor
    7. December 2018 at 18:44

    In an economics blog, I’m surprised not to have seen comments about arbitrage.

    My understanding is that the decision to emphasize 3 point shooting was explicitly an arbitrage decision by the Golden State Warriors management, to take advantage of the greater expected value of three point than two point shots.

    The surprise for me, in hindsight anyway, has been the slow rate of acceptance of the 3 point shot. In the NBA, it took about 30 years.

    The ABA had used it for about ten years before the NBA adopted it in 1979, but my recollection of its first big impact was when Rick Pitino’s Providence College team, with Billy Donovan, reached the Final Four in 1987.

    Larry Bird started with the Celtics in 1979 and played for 13 years. If I’m reading the stats right, he took an average of 17.4 two point attempts for every 1.9 three point attempts, a ratio of 9:1. He made 50.9% of the twos and 37.6% of the three pointers. Expected value for twos, 1.02 (2 x 0.509 = 1.02); for threes, 1.13 (3 x 0.376 = 1.13). Arguably, Bird should have taken more threes. I think so.

    Stephan Curry started 30 years later, in 2009, and is in his 10th year. Curry has taken an average of 9.0 two point attempts for every 7.9 three point attempts, a ratio of 1.14:1. He has made 51.4% of his twos and 43.8% for threes. Expected value for twos, 1.03 (2 x 0.514 = 1.03); for threes, 1.31 (3 x 0.438 = 1.31). Perhaps Curry should take even more threes.

    As a matter of personal taste, I’m fine with the current NBA. I could do with fewer high pick & roll plays, but I like a fast pace and open game. My idea of the most aesthetically beautiful style of play ever seen in basketball is John Wooden’s 1964 UCLA team, with Walt Hazzard and Keith Erickson. De gustibus not disbutandum est, or is it De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum?

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