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Why acting in football is so common

9. October, 2011
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Don’t worry, this hasn’t turned into a sports blog. However, this little study on PLoS ONE was too good to let pass. They studied football (the British type, what some people might refer to as soccer) and how the players feign being tackled. Their study was about deception and when deception is adaptive – or to put it plainly, when it pays to cheat.

David GK, Condon CH, Bywater CL, Ortiz-Barrientos D, Wilson RS (2011) Receivers Limit the Prevalence of Deception in Humans: Evidence from Diving Behaviour in Soccer Players. PLoS ONE 6(10): e26017. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0026017

Gwendolyn David and her team hypothesised that humans are less likely to cheat if the cost is too high and the benefit too small and that the risk of detection increases with proximity to the receiver.

In other words, they predicted that when a footballer (signaller)  is near his own goal, he will not risk falling over and letting the ball in just for a free kick whereas he will feign a tackle when near the opposition’s goal as the benefits are much greater there. They also predicted that the referee (receiver) will not spot a feigned tackle as easily when the players are far away from him.

Their predictions came from animal signalling theory, which is usually tested in other animals whereas human deceit is normally studied with regards to lying – that is, verbal deceit.

What they found was almost, but not quite what they predicted:

  • Footballers cheat more often near the goal of the opposing team and they also cheat more often, when they have more to gain (if there is a tie or if they are behind and not if they are winning). So this was just like they predicted.
  • They predicted that the potential punishment by the receiver of a signaller would deter players from cheating, but they couldn’t verify this, as the referee never punished a player that feigned a tackle and very rarely punished a player that had been actually tackled (there were many more real tackles than feigned ones, so there was scope for the referee to get a real tackle wrong, apparently). They also predicted that when cheaters were more prevalent, the receiver would reward cheating proportionally less often. This wasn’t the case. The referee found in favour of the cheater feigning a tackle more often when the players cheated more often.
  • One prediction was that referees would reward more signalling (true or false, that is finding for the fallen player regardless of whether he was cheating or not) by players in closer proximity to the referee. This did happen, as both real tackles and feigned ones were rewarded more often when the players were near the referee. In addition to this, they predicted that the referee would be better at spotting feigned tackles when the players were near him, and this was also the case. The referee rewarded proportionally fewer feigned tackles than real ones when the tackle happened near him.
  • Finally,they predicted that players would feign more often near the referee seeing as it was more often rewarded, but this didn’t happen. Probably because the reward near the centre of the pitch wasn’t that great.

In conclusion, if there was harsher punishment for feigned tackles, especially tackles feigned by players near the opposing team’s goal, there wouldn’t be as many “actors” in football. The potential cost of the deception would be too great. Referees also need to get better at spotting feigned tackles.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. 10. October, 2011 21:38

    I hate football but I really love this study. Good find! 🙂

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