Don't jump! Advice for goalkeepers from economic psychology

You have to feel sorry for goalkeepers. While strikers take all the glory for scoring goals, keepers only tend to get noticed when they make mistakes. Well now a little bit of goalkeeping help is at hand from an unlikely source: economic psychology.

Ofer Azar and colleagues in Israel watched hours of archival footage and noticed that goalkeepers save substantially more penalty kicks when they stay in the centre of goal than when they jump to the left or right. Yet paradoxically, in 93.7 per cent of penalty situations, keepers chose to jump rather than stay in the centre.

In fact, analysis of 286 penalty kicks taken in elite matches around the world showed that keepers saved 33.3 per cent of penalties when they stayed in the centre, compared with just 12.6 per cent of kicks when they jumped right and 14.2 per cent when they jumped left.

The researchers believe the anomaly may be a reversed manifestation of what is known in economic psychology as the inaction effect or the omission bias. That is, people tend to suffer more regret after a negative outcome follows something they've done, compared with something they haven't done. In the case of keepers, the researchers surmised, they feel greater regret at letting a goal in after standing still in the centre, compared with jumping. If the ball ends up in the back of the net after they've jumped, at least it will have felt as though they had made a decent attempt to save it.

This account appeared to be supported by a survey of 32 top Israeli keepers. Of the 15 who said their goal position would make any difference to how bad they felt about letting in a penalty, 11 said they would feel worse if they just stayed in the centre.

Of course, if goalkeepers around the world heed the lessons from this study and start staying in the centre of goal more often, presumably there will only be a brief period before penalty takers notice and start aiming more for the sides of the goal, thus balancing things out again. So give keepers a headstart - forward them this study, but don't tell any strikers about it!

Bar-Eli, M., Azar, O.H., Ritov, I. & Keidar-Levin, Y. (2007). Action bias among elite soccer goalkeepers: The case of penalty kicks. Journal of Economic Psychology, 28, 606-621.
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