Having read (and written about) the book ‘Freakonomics’ and so was excited to discover a podcast produced and presented by the authors of the the books. The first one I chose to listen to was about the football World Cup and specifically about the penalties. The basic principle of freakonomics is to take existing data and apply econometric analysis to discover how people actually act in a variety of situations. Penalties is a particularly interesting topic to study because it is an almost perfect real life example of a one against one game where the two people have to choose their action independently (i.e. it is too fast to react to the kick so the goal must move beforehand) and that there is a large amount of already existing data. What they found was quite interesting. For the penalty taker there are three possibilities – to kick right, middle or left. For the goalkeeper also three possibilities. To cut a long story, they discovered that what happened with in real life was almost exactly the same as what they would theoretically expect. Except in one specific situation. Goalkeepers almost never stay in the middle. With that information, theory expects that penalty takers would shoot often in the middle. They don’t. If the goal is to score, this is a very odd result. However, if you change the primary motivation of the penalty taker from ‘scoring’ to ‘not looking foolish’ then the results make a lot more sense. It seems in real life almost no one wants to take the risk of being the one guy shoots down the middle only for the keeper to just stand there and be saved. Almost every other possible outcome ends at the very least with the penalty taker does look foolish.
This finding explains a few volleyball situations. For example the middle blocker who always jumps with the first tempo even if the likelihood of it being set is minimal, because to allow a first tempo to be attacked without a block make him look foolish. Or the setter who never sets first tempo in important moments even if the success rate is high because to not be successful reflects directly on him, whereas every other possibility deflects the responsibility somewhere else. (Or because the middle blocker is always jumping 🙂 )
But the biggest lesson (for me)? Don’t assume that peoples’ motivations are as you expect. That is applicable in every field.
The ‘Freakonomics’ podcast is available on iTunes for free.