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Penalty shoot-out, anyone?


I listened to the Today programme in the car a few days ago on the way to a meeting. I had heard of, but not read, Freakonomics by Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt. They’ve got a new book out.

It’s called Think Like a Freak, and Stephen Dubner was on the show publicising it.  With the World Cup coming up, he talked about penalty kicks (look away now, England fans!).

Research shows that most penalty kickers aim for one of the corners.  However, more research apparently shows that penalty kicks aimed dead centre have a much higher chance of resulting in a goal (because the goalkeeper anticipates the ‘usual’ kick and dives one way or the other).  So why do footballers keep aiming for the corners?

On the face of it, this seems to fly in the face of John Surowiecki’s ‘Wisdom of Crowds’ theories – if most footballers aim for the corners, then that ought to be the best thing to do, because they are ‘the crowd’.  On the other hand, professional footballers are the experts at what they do, so maybe Dubner and Levitt, and Surowiecki, are actually saying the same thing – don’t do what the experts tell you!

What Stephen Dubner added on the Today programme interview is the importance of the data – the experts might after all be right, but check the data to find out!

Unfortunately, the Today programme in question is no longer available to listen to, but here are Dubner and Levitt talking at the Hay Festival about when to accept that giving up is the right thing to do – anathema, surely?

What all of these odd and marginally-linked threads made me do is think, and I like to be made to think, and to have my ideas and preconceptions challenged…