What your choice of best ever footballer says about human memory

Cruijff - the best ever player?
Ask a friend to name the best ever footballer and they're likely to pick someone who was mid-career when they (your friend) was aged around 17. That's according to a new investigation into the "reminiscence bump". This term describes the fact that when you ask people to name the most memorable events in their lives, they tend to refer to things that happened to them in their teens and early twenties. Recently it's been shown that a similar effect occurs when you ask people to name their favourite music, books and films, with them tending to pick out content from their youth. Now David Rubin and his colleagues have extended this line of research to people's judgement of the best footballers of all time.

Six hundred and nineteen people (aged 16 to 80) took part in the study online, conducted in Dutch and hosted on the website of the University of Amsterdam. Participants were presented with the names of 190 all-time leading football players and asked to name their judgement of the five best players of all time. They could either select from the list or choose their own.

The researchers calculated the mid-career point of the 172 players named by the participants and compared this against the participants' age at that time. Participants overwhelming tended to name players whose career mid-point coincided with participants' teens and early twenties. The modal age (i.e. the most common) of the participants at their chosen players' mid-career was 17 years. The researchers said this was the most appropriate statistic to use because the average (22 years) and median (20 years) stats are more susceptible to the bias to name currently active players.

Another way of reporting the results is to say that participants recalled more players who were mid-career in the second decade of the participants' lives than ones who were mid-career in the participants' third decade. And they named more players from the period in which they were aged 11 to 30 than from the period in which they were aged 1 to 10 or aged 31 to 40.

Focusing on the most frequently chosen players, Johan Cruijff was most often selected by participants who were aged 9 to 18 when he was at his career midpoint; Pelé was most often selected by participants who were aged between 12 and 21 years when he was mid-career. Incidentally, currently active players who made the list of twenty most frequently chosen players were: Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo and David Beckham (go Becks!). Only the youngest cohort (born between 1986 to 1995) chose more players who were mid-career in 2000s than players who were mid-career in the 90s.

"The results of this study are another example of the robustness of the reminiscence bump phenomenon," the researchers said.

Several theories have been put forward to explain the reminiscence bump, including that our memories are more efficient in our teens and twenties. Others think it's because more novel things happen to us at that time of life, such as our first kiss or first job, causing them to get lodged in memory. Rubin and his team say their findings are inconsistent with this "cognitive account", as it's known, because children typically start to play and follow football between the ages of 5 and 15, so if the cognitive account were true you'd think they'd pick players who were mid-career at that time.

ResearchBlogging.orgJanssen, S., Rubin, D., and Conway, M. (2011). The reminiscence bump in the temporal distribution of the best football players of all time: Pelé, Cruijff or Maradona? The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 1-14 DOI: 10.1080/17470218.2011.606372

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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