Why do pro athletes play so badly so often?

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There are many reasons, of course, but a common one is “action bias.” If the player does nothing and screws up we’re far more critical than if he did something and screws up.  Because of this, players frequently do more when they should do less:

In soccer penalty kicks, goalkeepers choose their action before they can clearly observe the kick direction. An analysis of 286 penalty kicks in top leagues and championships worldwide shows that given the probability distribution of kick direction, the optimal strategy for goalkeepers is to stay in the goal’s center. Goalkeepers, however, almost always jump right or left. We propose the following explanation for this behavior: because the norm is to jump, norm theory (Kahneman, D., & Miller, D. T. (1986). Norm theory: Comparing reality to its alternatives. Psychological Review, 93, 136–153) implies that a goal scored yields worse feelings for the goalkeeper following inaction (staying in the center) than following action (jumping), leading to a bias for action. The omission bias, a bias in favor of inaction, is reversed here because the norm here is reversed – to act rather than to choose inaction. The claim that jumping is the norm is supported by a second study, a survey conducted with 32 top professional goalkeepers. The seemingly biased decision making is particularly striking since the goalkeepers have huge incentives to make correct decisions, and it is a decision they encounter frequently. Finally, we discuss several implications of the action/omission bias for economics and management.

Source: “Action bias among elite soccer goalkeepers: The case of penalty kicks” from Journal of Economic Psychology, Volume 28, Issue 5, October 2007, Pages 606-621

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