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Football penalty shoot-outs are unfair says new research

Football penalty shoot-outs give an unfair psychological advantage to the team that shoots first, according to new research(1) from LSE published this week.

Professor Ignacio Palacios-Huerta, from LSE's Department of Management, and his co-author Jose Apesteguia, associate professor at Pompeu Fabra University, studied 2,820 penalty kicks from penalty shoot-outs from the major national and international competitions between 1970 – 2008. They found that the team that takes the first kick wins 60 per cent of the time and the team that takes the second 40 per cent of the time.

Professor Palacios-Huerta said: 'Most TV channels cut to the commercial break when the coin is being tossed to decide which team takes the first penalty – but our findings show that this could be the deciding moment in a drawn match.

'The coin gives a 20 per cent advantage to the team that shoots first. The psychological pressure of "lagging behind" clearly affects the performance of the team that kicks second.'

goalkeeperAlthough the research, published in the American Economic Review, is the first study of its kind, footballers instinctively understand the psychological advantage of taking the first penalty. Palacios-Huerta and Apesteguia studied films of the penalty coin toss in 20 matches. In every case, except one, the winner of the toss chose to take the first penalty. The exception was Italy-Spain in the European Cup –  Italy won the coin toss but chose Spain to kick first and Spain won the penalty shoot out.

The researchers  also interviewed 240 players and coaches – both professional and amateur – and almost all said they would prefer to take the first kick and 96 per cent said that this was to put pressure on the team kicking second.

'I suspect that the heads of FIFA or UEFA  are not going to like the fact that the winner of the World Cup, the European Cup or the Champions League is decided, in part, on the 60-40 flip of a coin. They would surely prefer the coin and the order that penalty kicks are taken in to be perfectly neutral'.

In order to reduce the psychological impact of the kicking order, Professor Palacios-Huerta suggests a solution that mirrors what happens in a tie break in a tennis match. Here the first player (A) takes the first serve, then the second player (B) serves twice, then the first player serves twice, then player B serves twice again and so on. In a football penalty shoot out this pattern would repeat until the ten penalties had been taken or the penalty shoot out has been won.

The pattern looks like: ABBAABBAAB, and so on

Professor Palacios-Huerta said: 'This pattern of penalty taking would greatly reduce the unfair "first mover" advantage since the second team is not always trying to play "catch up" and the problem of leading or lagging would  be compensated for. Not only  would it be more fair, but it would  also be much more entertaining for neutral fans'

In another piece of research Professor Palacios-Huerta, with co-author Julio Gonzalez-Díaz from the University of Santiago de Compostela, found the same phenomenon in chess matches(2) where two players play a series of chess games against one another, alternating who plays with the white pieces. The player who plays with the white pieces in the first game – and so plays with the white pieces in the odd games –  wins more  matches than the player who plays with the white pieces in the even games. As in a football penalty shoot-out, the chances are about 60-40 in favour of the player who draws the white pieces in the first game.

Professor Palacios-Huerta said: 'In a dynamic competitive situation when information on the performance of the competitors is released in stages while they are competing, the state of the competition clearly impacts performance – for purely psychological reasons. Leading helps performance, while lagging hurts it – whether it's a cerebral activity such as world class chess or  a more spontaneous activity such as kicking a ball.

'We face many competitive situations in life where our findings could have implications. For example, it might affect how teachers design and release information in academic competitions in schools or colleges, what policies electoral commissions put in place about the release of information about voting tendencies before an election or how information is released in competitions for internal promotion in a company.'

Palacios-Huerta and Apesteguia are economists who are interested in how psychological factors can affect the decisions and performance of people and institutions.


Posted Thursday 16 December 2010

Notes for Editors

(1) A pdf of the paper 'Psychological Pressure in Competitive Environments: evidence from a randomized natural experiment', Jose Apesteguia and Ignacio Palacios-Huerta, from the December 2010 issue of the American Economic Review, is available to journalists from the LSE press office

(2) 'Pawns of the Emotions: psychological elements in cognitively sophisticated humans', Julio Gonzalez and Ignacio Palacios-Huerta

More information for journalists is available from:

Sue Windebank, LSE press office, T: + 44 (0)20 7849 4624, E: s.windebank@lse.ac.uk