The Goalkeeper’s Flaw – Action Bias

The Goalkeeper’s flaw

Consider the case of professional football goalkeepers that need to defend against penalty kicks. What is the most effective strategy for stopping the ball? Research has found that goalkeepers who dive to the right stop the ball 12.6% of the time and those who dive to the left stop the ball 14.2% of the time. But goalkeepers who don’t move do have a 33.3% chance of stopping the ball.


In a penalty situation, the ball takes less than 0.3 seconds to travel from the player who kicks the ball to the goal. There is not enough time for the goalkeeper to watch the ball’s trajectory. So, he must take a decision before the ball is kicked.

They almost always dive either to the left or to the right. Rarely do they stay standing in the middle, even though they have a better chance of stopping it if they are in the middle. Why do they do this?

Looking busy

The simple answer is that it looks more impressive and feels less embarrassing to dive to the wrong side than to freeze on the spot and watch the ball sail past.

This is the action bias. Look active, even if it achieves nothing. The action bias affects you more when a situation is new or unclear.

In the days of old

In our old hunter-gatherer environment lightning fast reactions were essential to survival. When our ancestors saw a shadow that looked a lot like a saber-toothed tiger, they did not stop to talk over what it might be. They hit the road. We are the descendants of these quick responders. Back then, it was better to run away once too often.

Society at large still prefers rash action to a sensible wait-and-see strategy. But we now value reflection more highly. You get no medal, no statue with your name on it if you make exactly the right decision by waiting.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s