Goalkeepers prone to 'gambler's fallacy' but penalty takers fail to exploit it

July 31, 2014, University College London

After a string of penalties aimed in the same direction, goalkeepers are more likely to dive in the opposite direction on the next penalty but kickers fail to exploit this pattern, finds new UCL research.

The study, published in Current Biology, shows that shoot-outs in international tournaments resemble a psychological game. The researchers studied penalty shoot-out videos from all World Cup and Euro finals tournaments between 1976 and 2012.

They found that each team of kickers produced more or less random sequences of kicks to the left or the right of the goal. Goalkeepers' dives to the left or the right were not related to the direction of the kick, suggesting that goalkeepers at this elite level make their decisions in advance, rather than reacting to each kick. However, goalkeepers' decisions were non-random in one crucial respect: when the kickers repeatedly kicked in the same direction on consecutive penalties, goalkeepers became more likely to dive in the opposite direction on the next penalty. The goalkeepers therefore display what has been called the 'gambler's fallacy' – like a person who believes that after coin flips produce a run of 'heads', the next flip is bound to produce 'tails'.

"Complete randomness is generally the best strategy in competitive games" says lead author Erman Misirlisoy of the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience. "Because the goalkeeper displays the gambler's fallacy, kickers could predict which way the goalkeeper is likely to dive on the next kick. That would obviously give the kicker an advantage – they would simply aim for the opposite side of the goal. Surprisingly, though, we found that kickers failed to exploit this advantage".

"Often you can only win in elite sport by exploiting tiny weaknesses in your opponent's strategy", explains senior author Professor Patrick Haggard. "We can only speculate on why goalkeepers can get away with non-randomness, without the kickers exploiting it. One possibility is that penalty shoot-outs are relatively rare. But there is a more psychologically interesting possibility: shoot-outs are asymmetric, because one goalkeeper faces several different kickers, one after the other. Kickers are under enormous pressure, focussed on the moment of their own kick. Each individual kicker may not pay enough attention to the sequence of preceding kicks to predict what the goalkeeper will do next."

Erman Misirlisoy adds: "People can learn to predict: perhaps football coaches could study the gambler's fallacy, and could train their penalty kickers in preparation for the next World Cup. At the same time, goalkeepers could also learn to be less predictable".

Explore further: Goalies tend to dive right in World Cup penalty shoot-outs when their team is behind ... why?

More information: Current Biology, DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2014.07.013

Related Stories

Goalies tend to dive right in World Cup penalty shoot-outs when their team is behind ... why?

July 12, 2011
In the quarterfinal of the 2006 Soccer World Cup, England and Portugal played for 90 tense minutes and 30 minutes extra time without a single goal being scored. This led them to a penalty shoot-out; as one by one, players ...

Recommended for you

Study: No evidence to support link between violent video games and behaviour

January 16, 2018
Researchers at the University of York have found no evidence to support the theory that video games make players more violent.

Study listens in on speech development in early childhood

January 15, 2018
If you've ever listened in on two toddlers at play, you might have wondered how much of their babbling might get lost in translation. A new study from the University of Toronto provides surprising insights into how much children ...

Study suggests people dislike you more for humblebragging than for regular boasting

January 12, 2018
A team of researchers from Harvard University and UNC-Chapel Hill has conducted a study regarding humblebragging—in which a person boasts about an achievement but tries to make it sound less boastful by minimizing it—and ...

Study identifies brain circuit controlling social behavior

January 11, 2018
A new study by researchers at Roche in Basel, Switzerland has identified a key brain region of the neural circuit that controls social behavior. Increasing the activity of this region, called the habenula, led to social problems ...

Can writing your 'to-do's' help you to doze? Study suggests jotting down tasks can speed the trip to dreamland

January 11, 2018
Writing a "to-do" list at bedtime may aid in falling asleep, according to a Baylor University study. Research compared sleep patterns of participants who took five minutes to write down upcoming duties versus participants ...

Tamper-resistant oxycodone tablets have no impact on overall opioid use

January 11, 2018
The introduction of tamper-resistant opioid tablets does not have an effect on rates of opioid use or harms at a population level, according to a new study led by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) at UNSW ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.