Goalkeeping with an ancient mind

Behavioral economist Ofer Azar did an intriguing study of premier soccer goalies a few years ago, worth dusting off for the World Cup. Azar, a lecturer at Ben-Gurion University in Israel, studied penalty kicks. A penalty kick is awarded after a foul, and is often used as a tie-breaker in championship games.  A designated player stands 36 feet from the goal, which measures 24 feet side to side. Only the opposing goalie stands between the kicker and the goal, so it’s a high probability shot. In fact, with the typical penalty kick flying at more than 60 miles per hour, the goalie has only a fraction of a second to respond.

Facing such a physical challenge, professional goalies must decide before the actual kick what they will do: go right, go left, or stay put. So Azar decided to study what they actually do—and what they should do to be successful. He collected data on more than 300 of the top keepers in the world in action, and found a clear pattern: Goalies had the best chance of stopping a penalty shot if they just stayed put, smack in the center of the net. If they did this—that is, moved neither left not right–they were able to stop the opponent’s shot 33.3 percent of the time. That’s not great, but it’s a lot better than the other odds: Goalies who made a guess and jumped left stopped only 14.2 percent of the shots, and goalies who dove right stopped a dismal 12.6 percent. That’s one in eight, which means seven of every eight penalty shots flew past for a score. That can’t feel good.

Indeed, it felt lousy. Azar interviewed the goalies about their decisions in the net, and he found that their emotions played a major role in goaltending strategy. Despite the clear statistical advantage of staying put in the center, only about 6 percent of goalies actually choose to do this. Why? Because they feel worse if they fail standing still—worse than they feel if they fail diving. In other words, taking any action—even an action doomed to failure—is better than inaction, because doing nothing and still failing is emotionally unacceptable. That’s the heuristic mind that makes movement an emotional choice, and it takes a lot of effort to alter the impulse.

Azar doesn’t care all that much about soccer. In fact, he published these results in the Journal of Economic Psychology, because his real interest is how and why people make irrational choices in business and personal finance. And it’s clear that most of us are just as irrationally biased toward action as these world-class goalies. As I describe in my forthcoming book, On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind’s Hard-Wired Habits, we have a powerful urge to “do something” even when the “something” doesn’t make a great deal of sense. This almost certainly derives from an ancient and powerful habit of dealing with threats through action.

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