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Applying Behavioral Sciences in the Real World

Behavioral Lessons From the World Cup

Mindy Hernandez, Founder, One Decision

Everyone loves the World Cup, but for those interested in decision-making and behavior, the penalty kick is a wonderful distilled study in decision-making under pressure. Think about it: triumph or heart-breaking defeat rests on the decisions of two men, made in nanoseconds while the world watches.

The Times' excellent Freakonomics blog explores the surprising decision-making of the penalty kick. Data shows that the kicker has the best chance of success if he aims at the center of the goal. But data also shows that’s what the kicker is LEAST likely to do.


Well, to quote from the UK Times article by Levitt and Dubner:

To answer that question we need to first ask a different question: what is the kicker’s incentive when taking a penalty?

The answer may seem obvious: he wants to score a goal. But let’s break that down a bit further. Imagine an England player standing at the penalty spot sometime in the coming days with the eyes of the world upon him. If the idea is to score a goal to help his team to win, then the obvious choice is to kick it down the middle, where the keeper is unlikely to be.

But if he’s primarily concerned with himself, he may be thinking something different. He may think that if he kicks down the centre and the keeper does manage to stop it, the kicker will look like an utter fool. He may think back to the 2006 World Cup, in which two Swiss players went centre in a shootout and failed. He may think back to England’s own David Batty in the 1998 World Cup shoot-out defeat to Argentina. A penalty kick down the middle has the same private benefit as a goal to the left or the right, but a miss down the middle has a greater private penalty: it may well define a player’s career.

And so he acts according to his own private benefit, not the greater good, and fires away to the left or the right. If he misses there, the moment will be remembered more for the keeper’s competence than the kicker’s ignominy.

But, just for a moment, imagine instead that that same player, keeping in mind what he has read here and what his own experience has taught him, fires the ball straight towards the goal’s centre. If he fails, he may indeed be a goat to all of you. But to economists the world over he’ll be the truest of heroes.

Many saw Asamoah Gyan of Ghana do exactly this in the final moments of 0-0 game against Serbia. Gyan took a penalty and went center with it, winning the game for Ghana and, apparently, the hearts of economists everywhere.

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