Anyone been watching the World Cup? Today sees the final drama of the South Africa 2010 world cup unfold, when Spain and the Netherlands meet in the final tonight in Soccer City, Johannesburg . For a whole month, football lovers have been treated to a feast from the finest teams and players across the planet.
The social gap — between spectator and performer — appears huge. Few of us can match the wealth, never-mind skill, ingenuity, or professionalism to perform on such a stage. Watch closely, however, and at times a more familiar human side of footballers is visible. They may not live in our “world” as such, but that doesn’t mean they don’t think and act as humans generally do.
Often games are decided with literally one kick of the ball. In one quarter final, Ghana were granted such an opportunity against Uruguay. With the score tied at 1-1 in the final few seconds of extra time, a Uruguay player handled the ball, Ghana were awarded a penalty. Forward Asamoah Gyan stepped up to the spot. With this one kick he had the chance to put his country Ghana — at this stage Africa’s last representatives at the South Africa 2010 World Cup — into the semi-finals. Under the most extreme pressure, Gyan opted for power….and missed. The ball ricocheted off the cross bar, and the game went into penalties to decide the winner. Ghana missed two of their allotted penalties, and so it was Uruguay’s chance to win the match with one kick. Forward Sebastian Abreu — nickname, El Loco (Spanish for madman) — stepped up to the spot. This footballer opted not for power. With the lightest of touches, he outsmarted the goalkeeper by chipping the ball almost right into the centre of the goal. Uruguay were in ecstasy. Ghana in agony.
But what about those two crucial kicks: the one for Ghana, the other for Uruguay. From one angle you could say that both cases exposed the weakness of Ghana players under pressure. In the first case the forward Gyan relied on brute force — and missed. In the second case, it was the Ghana goalkeeper who was left looking rather silly…because had he simply stayed where was, he would have been in the perfect position to simply catch the ball and prevent Uruguay winning. Of course, we know why the goalkeeper didn’t “stay”. Had he simply kept his position, in the centre, he would have looked even sillier had the forward put the ball either side of him. Perhaps the Uruguay forward Abreu must have known that too…because think how silly he would have looked had he missed with such an seemingly tame effort! (At least Ghana’s forward and their goalkeeper tried…right?)
Well, now cognitive scientists have discovered an ‘action bias’ during penalties. Their findings seem to demonstrate the human side, or social rationality, of footballers. Among their conclusions they noted that “Goalkeepers feel a pressure to act because they would feel guiltier missing a ball while staying in the centre than missing it while trying to do something…” And, “Kickers…act in a way that is going to minimize reproach rather than only the chances of missing.”
So, all this has got me thinking…How much do our thoughts and actions come from our “social rationality” — basically, not wanting to look silly — and how much from a more positive desire to achieve the best for ourselves and those around us? Where exactly does your ‘action bias’ lie?