I wrote this blog post during the last World Cup. As the semifinals near, I decided that it would be a perfect time to re-share.

Many of you may remember this lousy foul from the US vs Slovenia match.

Though I initially “jumped to conclusions” and assumed that it resulted from a hefty Slovenian bribe, a recent article in PLOS suggests the call may have resulted from a subconscious bias in reaction time and faulty conclusions of left and right directional movements.

UPenn researchers recruited soccer-knowledgeable fans to view still-frame replays from the English Priemership League (think David Beckham). This league was chosen because aside from David Beckham, ResearchBlogging.orgmany Americans are unfamiliar with the players and teams of this league in addition to limited television viewing within the US. This would reduce the chances of the participants recalling the final outcome of such a play and increase the chances of “unbiasing” directional bias. Kudos to these researchers for taking on the arduous task of blurring out players names and numbers on their jersey’s with Photoshop to eradicate further recall  (many of you are aware of my precipitous hatred for this program!).

Overall, these researchers found that Americans (i.e. individuals who read left to right) react quicker to events that unfold towards the right vs the left. Paradoxically, due to a slower reaction time to left-oriented POVs, participants were more likely to call (or catch) a foul.

I do find it interesting that despite having a slower reaction time to left directional play, fouls are more easily recognized and/or called on the left vs right side. Perhaps this ~100 ms reaction time delay to a left vs right directional play that is unfolding creates a “negativity bias” in that we assume the worst since we aren’t there to witness it….er react quickly enough  (just like we assume that the Slovenian government paid the referees because we weren’t personally there to see if money was slipped from one hand to another….humans love gossip!!!!!!)? Or perhaps the awkwardness of looking right to left causes us to fixate on the left-moving player longer, which leads us to more likely see suspicious activity? This is in contrast to the comfortability of looking left to right, much like reading which involves little fixation on the right-most word and a subsequent rapid transition to the next line. Do we view right directional plays similarly?

Regardless, it would be interesting if this study was replicated to compare cross-cultural differences in directional bias, particularly with societies that read right to left like Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese, and Japanese. Then perhaps this information can be adopted by FIFA to balance cultural -specific POV and ensure a fairer game.

Kranjec A, Lehet M, Bromberger B, Chatterjee A (2010). A Sinister Bias for Calling Fouls in Soccer PLoS One, 5 (7) : 10.1371/journal.pone.0011667