A cognitive error in football

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Up to June 27th, 2021, 14 penalties were assigned during the 2020 UEFA European Football Championship, or Euro 2020. Only in two of these the goalkeeper decided to stay in the center. Therefore, avoiding jumping to one of the two sides of the goal. Yet, according to historical statistics, penalties are distributed almost uniformly between right, center and left.

Why does this happen? A team of Israeli researchers hypothesized that this could be explained by a cognitive bias, called bias towards action. According to their hypothesis, in fact, professional goalkeepers would be more inclined to jump towards one of the two posts, rather than staying in the center of the goal. This is because, in case they concede a goal, they would feel more guilt standing still, regretting not to act, having done nothing to change the outcome. From this comes the name of the bias towards action.

But statistics say that protecting the center of the goal is a more than correct choice, as valid as jumping to one side. These researchers have then conducted a study to confirm their hypothesis.

The study

All begun with a statistical analysis, aimed at studying 296 penalty kicks in the major world leagues and championships. They were catalogued based on the direction of the shot and the choice of the goalkeeper, between jumping to the right, to the left or staying in the center. Immediately, some interesting data emerged.

In 286 kicks, 32.2% was directed to the left of the goalkeeper, 39.2% to their right and 28.7% to the center. Therefore, there was a slight preference to choose a side, rather than shooting centrally. But, at the same time, only 6.3% of the time the goalkeeper decided to stand still (with 49.3% jumps to the left and 44.4% to the right).

Calculating these data, in 286 penalties, only 18 times the goalkeeper decided to protect the center. But the number of shots directed to the center was 82. An amazing statistic.

Up to June 27th 2021, 14 penalties were assigned during Euro 2020. Only in two of these the goalkeeper decided to stay in the center.

The opinion of the experts

To confirm the hypothesis of a bias towards action, the researchers have interviewed 32 professional goalkeepers from the top two leagues of the Israeli federation.

In a questionnaire, they were asked to rank, according to their perception of normality, the three areas of the goal to protect in case of a penalty kick (Center, Right, Left). Among these 32 goalkeepers, 25 have put Center in the last place, thus preferring to jump to one side.

The last question of the questionnaire was aimed to investigate the feeling of regret experienced in the moment of the goal conceded, based on the expected direction of the shot. In a very rational way, 17 goalkeepers claimed to feel the same amount of regret for both jumping to one side of the goal and staying in the center. According to the researchers’ hypothesis, instead, 11 goalkeepers claimed to feel more guilty standing still, regretting not to have jumped. A claim that was compatible with the hypothesis of a bias towards action proposed by the researchers, even if not statistically significant.

The causes

Deciding to protect a side of the goal 96.7% of the time represents a non-optimal behavior. According to the researchers, this is caused by the bias towards action. This bias occurs because, for goalkeepers, jumping is considered to be the norm. Standing still is then seen as an abnormal, not common behavior. This is in accordance with the norm theory proposed by Kahneman and Miller in 1986: with the same negative outcome, there is a greater emotional reaction when following an abnormal behavior, rather than a normal one.

To remain in the football world, this theory represents the key point to the saying: “Never change a winning team”. Zeelenberg and his team of researchers, in 2002, proved that, after a positive result, there is a bias towards inaction, while there is the opposite effect, therefore a bias towards action, following a negative result.

Researchers suggest that this effect may be present in other fields, as for investors in the world of finance, but even in politics: if all goes well, there will be a tendency not to do anything. On the contrary, if something goes wrong, there is the tendency to act, implementing new laws or modifying rules.

Carlo Sordini


  1. Bar Eli, Michael and Azar, Ofer H. and Ritov, Ilana and Keidar-Levin, Yael and Schein, Galit, Action Bias Among Elite Soccer Goalkeepers: The Case of Penalty Kicks. Journal of Economic Psychology, Vol. 28, No. 5, 2007, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1091662
  2. Kahneman, D., & Miller, D. T. (1986). Norm theory: Comparing reality to its alternatives. Psychological Review, 93(2), 136–153. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.93.2.136
  3. Zeelenberg, M., van den Bos, K., van Dijk, E., & Pieters, R. (2002). The inaction effect in the psychology of regret. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82(3), 314–327. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.82.3.314

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