In high-stakes soccer, goalkeepers exhibit 'gambler's fallacy'

Research highlights the importance of understanding decision-making tendencies, which can affect all areas of life

When goalkeepers are pitted against multiple kickers in tense penalty shootouts, their attempts to dive for the ball show a predictable pattern that kickers would do well to exploit. After kickers repeatedly kick in one direction, goalkeepers become increasingly likely to dive in the opposite direction, according to an analysis of all 361 kicks from the 37 penalty shootouts that occurred in World Cup and UEFA Euro Cup matches over a 36-year period.

The findings, reported today in the Cell Press journal Current Biology, highlight the importance of monitoring and predicting sequential behavior in real-world competition, a lesson that could be applied to many areas of life, according to the researchers.

[pullquote align="right"]"It is important to try to be aware of situations in which we may be vulnerable to bad decision making. Then we may be able to avoid making mistakes." — Patrick Haggard, UCL[/pullquote]

"Cognitive fallacies can affect all of us, even if we are considered expert performers in a particular field," said Patrick Haggard, a PhD student in neuroscience at University College London (UCL) and Deputy Director of the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience. "It is important to try to be aware of situations in which we may be vulnerable to bad decision making. Then we may be able to avoid making mistakes."

For example, Haggard and fellow PhD student Erman Misirlisoy explained that at a casino roulette table, it's not a good idea to place a big bet on black simply because there have been several reds in a row. Previous events aside, red and black are always equally likely. The natural tendency to suspect otherwise is known as "gambler's fallacy."

The researchers said they are interested in how people make decisions, and they recognized soccer and other sports as great examples of competitive cognitive strategies at work. As Misirlisoy explained:

In a penalty shootout, a goalkeeper and a group of kickers do their best to outwit each other. How they control their behavior gives an insight into cognitive strategies more generally. Just as a kicker and a goalkeeper need to decide between kicking left or right and diving left or right, we often find ourselves in life making decisions between two roughly balanced options, such as two alternative routes to where we want to go.

As is often the case in sports, goalkeepers can't wait until the ball has been kicked to dive or they'll miss it every time. They simply have to guess. The best strategy for both goalkeepers and kickers is to behave unpredictably, diving and kicking in random directions.

The researchers' analysis of penalty shootouts shows that even the very best goalkeepers in the world suffer from a cognitive fallacy in selecting which way to dive next, making their next move more predictable than it really should be. Fortunately for those goalkeepers, kickers failed to exploit those goalkeeper biases, the researchers found.

Four Consecutive Shots by Portuguese Kickers against the English Goalkeeper during the Euro 2004 Semifinal Penalty Shootout. The Portuguesekickers are shown in red and the English goalkeeper in blue; the green circle is the ball. All four kicks were to the left of the goal. The goalkeeper made a rightward dive following three consecutive kicks to the left. (Source: Misirlisoy et al, Current Biology)What's a goalkeeper to do? Misirlisoy suggested that it might be good strategy to decide on a random sequence of dives before the game and follow that sequence regardless of what kickers do. Until that day comes, kickers could learn to predict which way goalkeepers might dive.

For the researchers, the work left them experiencing this year's World Cup series in a whole new way. "We found we were thinking about behavioral decision making as much as about the entertainment," Misirlisoy said. "We were trying to predict which way the goalkeeper would dive, and we didn't pay much attention to how many times the ball ended up in the net."

Read the article

This article is freely available for two weeks, until August 14:

Misirlisoy et al: "Asymmetric predictability and cognitive competition in football penalty shootouts," Current Biology, Current Biology.


Elsevier Connect Contributor

Mary Beth O'LearyMary Beth O'Leary (@MaryBethPress) is Press Officer for Cell Press (@CellPressNews), based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She began her career at Cell Press as an Senior Editorial Assistant for the journal Cell before transitioning into the marketing/media relations department. As Press Officer, she works closely with the media on communicating the scientific breakthroughs published in Cell Press's 30 journals to the public. A graduate of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, she studied literature and art history.

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