Imagine that the England men’s football team reaches the quarter finals of the World Cup in Qatar. Which of the following outcomes do you think is most likely:
A) England get knocked out; B) England get knocked out on penalties; or C) England take a 1-0 lead, with Harry Kane scoring first, but get knocked out on penalties?
According to the laws of probability, outcome A must be more likely than B. Losing on penalties involves being knocked out and the match going to penalties; and the probability of two events occurring cannot possibly be greater than the probability of one of those events occurring alone. By this same logic, outcome C (which involves multiple events) is the least likely to occur.
When we presented this question to 300 people in the UK, however, 46% responded that England being knocked out via a shootout (B) was more likely than England simply being knocked out (A). And 40% responded that (C) was more likely than (A).
These individuals committed what is known as the conjunction fallacy. This is a remarkably common error that has been replicated across several domains (from forecasting criminal trial outcomes to accumulator betting on football matches) since it was first documented by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1983.
One reason why we commit the conjunction fallacy relates to a phenomenon known as the availability heuristic. This describes how we judge the probability of something happening based on how easily we can recall instances of that thing happening in the past. When thinking about the England men’s football team, for example, memories of cruel penalty shootout losses are readily available in the minds of many fans. And so that outcome intuitively seems highly likely.
The influence of the availability heuristic does not stop there, however. In fact, it helps to explain decision-making at every level of the beautiful game: on the pitch, in the stands, and even in the manager’s office.
It helps to explain, for instance, why fans often urge players to shoot from outside the box – and why players often oblige. Long-range screamers live on in our memory, which makes the probability of scoring them seem higher than it really is. Data from the English Premier League, however, shows that just 2% of shots from outside the area and just 3% of direct free-kicks end up in the back of the net. The rest are immediately forgotten.
The availability heuristic also helps to explain why defenders almost always seek to put the ball out for a throw-in rather than concede a corner – and why fans heartily applaud them for doing so. For goals from corners are generally more memorable than goals from throw-ins. And yet, incredibly, some research has shown that attacking throw-ins are actually more likely to result in a shot on target than corners.
Lastly, it helps to explain why the football manager Roberto Mancini reportedly once encouraged his team to predominantly use ‘outswinging’ corners that curl away from the goalkeeper. Memories of thumping headers from outswingers are more easily recalled than glancing headers from inswingers. But research shows that shots taken from inswingers are actually 1.6 times more likely to go in than those from outswingers..
These examples illustrate how the availability heuristic can shape common knowledge within football. If England do make it to the quarter-finals of this World Cup, perhaps a combination of close-range shots, attacking throw-ins, and inswinging corners can help us to avoid being knocked out (on penalties, of course).