Sign in / Join

Penalty kicks and "action bias"

The literature on penalty kicks and decision-making continues to grow. The most recent (known) paper is from a group of Israeli scholars in the October 2007 issue of the Journal of Economic Psychology:

If goalkeepers behave according to the probability matching principle, they should choose to stay in the center in about 28.7% of the kicks (the percentage of kicks towards the center). The probability with which they choose to stay in the center, however (6.3%), is much lower, suggesting that probability matching is not the bias we see here. Indeed, it has been shown in the past that with experience, probability matching is gradually eroded (see for example Bereby-Meyer & Erev, 1998), and obviously elite goalkeepers are very experienced subjects in facing penalty kicks. This supports the conclusion that probability matching does not seem to be the reason for the surprisingly low frequency of goalkeepers choosing to stay in the center.

We propose that the reason for goalkeepers not staying in the center is action bias. Because the norm (as can be easily seen in the data) is that goalkeepers choose action (jumping to one of the sides) rather than inaction (staying in the center), norm theory (see Kahneman & Miller, 1986) predicts that a negative outcome would be amplified following inaction. That is, an identical negative outcome (a goal being scored) is perceived to be worse when it follows inaction rather than action. The intuition why is that if the goalkeeper jumps and a goal is scored, he might feel “I did my best to stop the ball, by jumping, as almost everyone does; I was simply unlucky that the ball headed to another direction (or could not be stopped for another reason)”. On the other hand, if the goalkeeper stays in the center and a goal is scored, it looks as if he did not do anything to stop the ball (remaining at his original location, the center) – while the norm is to do something – to jump. Because the negative feeling of the goalkeeper following a goal being scored (which happens in most penalty kicks) is amplified when staying in the center, the goalkeeper prefers to jump to one of the sides, even though this is not optimal, exhibiting an “action bias”.

The paper is discussed by Patricia Cohen in today's NY Times. The analogy to policy makers' impulse to "do something" when the economy hits the skids is made.