Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP file
United States goalkeeper Hope Solo makes a save - by diving to the right - during the penalty shootout of the quarterfinal match between Brazil and the United States at the Women's Soccer World Cup in Dresden, Germany on July 10.
Did you hear the one about the four scientists who walked into a bar and walked out with an idea for a study?
Marieke Roskes, a researcher at the University of Amsterdam, and her colleagues met in an Amsterdam bar to talk about work and to commiserate about the Dutch men’s soccer team’s 1-0 loss to Spain in the 2010 World Cup finals. "What the heck went wrong?," the group wondered.
They remembered seeing a scientific paper about how dogs, happy to see their owner, wag their tail more to the right. Other studies have shown that toads strike to the right when going after prey and humans turn to the right to plant a kiss on their sweetheart.
You’re probably wondering: What does this have to do with soccer? Well, Roskes and her friends speculated that maybe this right-side bias plays out when goalies dive to block a penalty kick.
So they examined every penalty shoot-out in every World Cup from 1982 to 2010. Usually, the goalies were equally likely to dive right or left. But when their team was losing, they were more likely to dive to the right.
Huh? This is the deal: The right-sided bias crops up when people’s actions can lead to something positive, not negative. And when your team is losing in the World Cup, blocking a penalty kick could make you a national hero.
We can only hope Hope Solo never finds herself in this situation when the U.S. women’s soccer team plays Japan in the World Cup finals Sunday.
Roskes and her coauthors also performed a little experiment with volunteers. They asked them to click on a line on a computer to divide it in half. Sure enough, people aimed a little toward the right when motivated by the thought of a reward.
This right-side bias makes sense for right-handed people, but what about us southpaws?
Roskes, who’s working on her Ph.D at the university, says she and her coauthors thought lefties probably would be less likely to have a right-side bias. But a review of the scientific literature found that “irrespective of handedness, people tend to display the right-oriented bias” when motivated to accomplish something positive.
“While we do not have information about the goalkeepers’ handedness, in our experiment we found no difference between left-handed and right-handed people,” Roskes says.
Okay, so do penalty-takers whose team is losing tend to kick to the right?
“There is a key difference between penalty-takers and goalies,” Roskes says. “Failing to score a penalty is a rare event that is rather humiliating for the penalty-taker. So penalty-takers focus on not missing rather than scoring.” In other words, they focus on the negative rather than the positive.
Roskes and her coauthors haven’t yet shared their observations, to be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, with the coaches of the Dutch men’s soccer team. “Based on our finding, we would recommend penalty-takers shoot to their right (the goalkeeper’s left) when their team is ahead, as it is likely that the goalkeeper will dive to the right.”
So goalkeepers should simply think twice about diving to the right when their team is losing? Well, Roskes says, they should, but it might not make much of a difference, because it’s pretty tough to overcome something so automatic.
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