Sinister Bias in Calling Soccer Fouls

Sinister Bias in Calling Soccer Fouls
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Soccer fans are well aware of the inconsistency that referees display in calling fouls. Players are allowed to tackle other players as long as they are making a fair play for control of the ball, but what constitutes "fair play" is subject to the discretion of the referee. Obviously, if the referee is biased in some way, this could be a problem.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have uncovered what they believe to be a sinister, insidious bias: Referees may be more likely to call a foul if the action takes place moving from right-to-left instead of moving from left-to-right. (See image.)

The authors asked 12 right-handed, English-speaking soccer players to judge photographs of a soccer tackle. They had to make an instantaneous judgment whether or not a foul was committed. The photos were revolved around the X-axis, so the only thing that differed was the perceived direction of motion. As shown, motion in the leftward direction caused the participants to call more fouls. But why?

The researchers cite existing evidence that our brains are wired to process events in a left-to-right direction. Also, people who speak languages which are written in a left-to-right direction (such as English) may have trained their brains to process motion in a similar way. As a result, right-to-left motion is slightly discomforting. The authors reason that this explains their results.

The authors did not conduct an experiment using participants who speak "right-to-left" languages (such as Hebrew or Arabic). Would they be more inclined to call fouls if the direction of motion was left-to-right?

Obviously, their research raises two possible concerns: First, a referee's judgment could be biased based solely on the direction of motion; and second, referees who speak "left-to-right" languages may perceive fouls differently than those who speak "right-to-left" languages.

Soccer is often referred to as "the beautiful game." Sadly, its beauty may depend on the eye of the beholder's viewing angle.

Source: Kranjec A, Lehet M, Bromberger B, Chatterjee A (2010). A Sinister Bias for Calling Fouls in Soccer. PLoS ONE 5(7): e11667. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0011667

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