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The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty Kick May Be More Malcolm Gladwell-ish Than I Had Realized

Is it just me, or are the conclusions of the study on goalkeepers and penalties described in the New York Times Magazine this week a little picturesque and arbitrary?

I haven’t read the study, which was published in the Journal of Economic Psychology, to which my subscription has tragically expired, but according to the abstract available online, it involved analyzing the behavior of top-flight goalkeepers during 286 penalty kicks. The scientists found that the goalkeepers were statistically most likely to stop the ball if they stayed in the center of goal, but that the goalkeepers nevertheless dived to the right or the left 94% of the time.

From this, the scientists behind the study concluded that what motivated the goalkeepers to jump was a fear of looking indecisive. As the Times put it:

[T]he goalies are afraid of looking as if they’re doing nothing — and then missing the ball. Diving to one side, even if it decreases the chance of them catching the ball, makes them appear decisive. “They want to show that they’re doing something,” says Michael Bar-Eli, one of the study’s authors. “Otherwise they look helpless, like they don’t know what to do.”

But is that really the most plausible explanation? The study’s authors don’t seem to have tested the conclusion in any way except to translate into the language of economic psychology:

[N]orm theory (Kahneman and Miller, 1986) implies that a goal scored yields worse feelings for the goalkeeper following inaction (staying in the center) than following action (jumping), leading to a bias for action. The omission bias, a bias in favor of inaction, is reversed.

And I can certainly think of possibilities that seem more likely than that goalkeepers are letting penalties go in because they’re afraid of looking silly. For instance, I would guess that I have (unscientifically) watched many, many more than 286 penalty kicks, and I would never have guessed that standing in one place was the goalie’s most effective defensive move. I would have thought that, since penalty takers frequently seem to aim for the corners of the net, those being the spots furthest from the goalie, the goalkeeper should pick a corner and dive toward it. Is it possible that, rather than suffering from a reverse omission bias, goalkeepers had the same misconception and thought that they were making the right choice?

Further, can we be so sure that standing in the middle of the net really is the best move for goalkeepers? Apparently it was on the 286 penalties the scientists studied. But those penalty kicks took place within a totality of understanding in which both goalkeepers and penalty kick takers expected the goalkeeper to dive. If that understanding changed—if penalty takers started assuming that the goalkeeper would stand still more often—then wouldn’t the statistical likelihood of stopping a goal from a given position change as well? Let’s say that all the goalkeepers in the world suddenly started standing still twice as often as they do now. How long would it take penalty takers to start adjusting their aim to take advantage of that new configuration? A month?

Finally, I obviously don’t know anything about the motivations of the scientists who conducted the study. But since their abstract promises that they’ll explore the implications of goalkeeper omission bias for “economics and management,” and since they’re willing to speculate quite airily in the Times about its implications for the current financial crisis (“C.E.O.’s might be tempted to change their corporate strategy, or investment managers to juggle their portfolios, even when staying put is the wisest course”), I’d say there’s some basis for hypothesizing that the aim here is to concoct a metaphor that can be franchised out across a variety of media topics rather than to advance our understanding of soccer or the human mind. Maybe that’s too cynical, but that’s such a common move in the sciences these days that I thought I’d jump at it, even if I’d be better off staying still.

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The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty Kick May Be More Malcolm Gladwell-ish Than I Had Realized

by Brian Phillips · December 15, 2008

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