The Politics of Diving
Soccer goalkeepers sure look spectacular with their acrobatic dives during penalties, but studies show that simply standing in the middle of the goal would give keepers the best chance of making the save. Our politicians could learn a thing or two from this.
When faced with an urgent problem, people have a strong tendency to do something—anything—rather than pausing to deliberate upon whether doing nothing might yield better results. Behavioural economists call this “action bias,” and our politicians are just as prone to it as elite sportspeople. Being aware of this bias and overcoming it where appropriate is important for the quality of decision-making in our society.
How does it work? Sports Psychologist Michael Bar-Eli takes analysed hundreds of penalty kicks from elite leagues, and found that while around a third of the kicks were aimed at the middle, goalkeepers valiantly dived to either side 94 percent of the time. Making this suboptimal strategy even more stupid is that goalkeepers who guess correctly and stay in the middle have a 60 percent chance to save, compared with only a 25 percent chance if they guess correctly either side.
Like goalies, politicians face similar social pressure (votes!) to “do something,” but sometimes, doing nothing would have been better.
Very well-paid goalkeepers jump way too often, Bar-Eli theorised, because of social pressure: they want to look good and feel good. When interviewed, goalkeepers said they simply looked better diving, and preferred the feeling of having put up a fight rather than sitting there watching the ball fly past them into the back of the net—even if this meant more goals.
This study reminded of a political version of action bias known as “the politician’s fallacy,” taken from Yes Minister’s wily Sir Humphrey. It goes like this: Something must be done; this is Something; therefore, we must do it. Like goalies, politicians face similar social pressure (votes!) to “do something,” but sometimes, doing nothing would have been better.
Acting by “giving certainty” to the electorate due to the “scaremongering” of the opposition, is diving unnecessarily.
Take Prime Minister Ardern’s snap promise that “no other regional fuel taxes while I am Prime Minister,” made hastily in response to the opposition making noise about more taxes. It was even a surprise to Associate Transport Minister and Regional Development Minister Shane Jones, who learned about it in the House rather than in caucus. Commentators called it Ardern’s “superannuation moment,” a spur-of-the-moment decision made for political reasons like John Key’s claim he would resign before making any changes to raise the retirement age. It might look good politically, but it isn’t the best option.
What is concerning here is that this decision, motivated by social pressure rather than sound fundamentals, precludes any further discussions about the merits of regional fuel taxes. Maybe it is a perfect solution for councils like Hamilton Council who are considering this as a funding option, but now it just isn’t an option. Acting by “giving certainty” to the electorate due to the “scaremongering” of the opposition, at the cost of keeping regional fuel taxes on the table, is diving unnecessarily. Policy made like this is an own goal for our democracy.