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Of football fouls and fluency

Imagine a circle pushing a square. If you imagined the circle on the left attempting to move the square on the right, then, like most of us, you’re probably fallible to the left-to-right motion perceptual-motor bias. Fluency, or a sense of ease, affects judgements and hence the decisions we take. We’ve all felt that slight discomfort with some of the choices we are considering while making a decision. Consider the perceptual-motor bias concerning movement from left to right. We are more comfortable with motion towards the right than towards the left. Goals scored from the left-to-right in football, for example, are rated as more beautiful than the goals scored from right-to-left.

Developing this natural preference probably arises on account of our language being left to right dominant. The way we read, write and conceptualize time and events in space are all from left-to-right. Accordingly, movement towards the right feels natural, whereas there is a sense of unease when it comes to leftward motion. Sports fans, imagine the implication! A clever study by Kranjec et al. (2010) suggests that this bias might be strongly at play, excuse the pun, when football referees call fouls.


They showed that members of their university football team were more likely to call a foul when they saw pictures of players moving towards the left as opposed to players moving towards the right, even though it was the same picture, inverted. Their natural unease with the direction of the movement increased the probability of it being called a foul. The bias also works the other way – fewer fouls would be called in the left-to-right direction as we naturally prefer that movement. The implications are huge – penalty kicks win and lose matches.

They add that this bias has been put to good use in the past by film-makers, if not anyone else. The movie Apocalypse Now shows the whole crew moving into the jungle leftward serving to heighten the discomfort viewers felt while watching the movie. In movies and plays, bad guys would enter the screen from the right whereas good guys would enter from the left.

We mentioned before that readers of left-right written language are prone to this bias. Kranjec et al. (2010) also say that there is evidence to prove that readers of languages written from right-to-left develop perceptual preferences accordingly. For example, those who write and think in Hebrew and Arabic represent events from right-to-left.  This could have implications in many other fields as well. Take for instance, safety. It can be hypothesized that we might unconsciously be a little more careful with traffic approaching from the right due to this in-built discomfort. Correspondingly, we are probably  a little more lax about traffic coming in from the left. Definitely worth thinking about the ramifications this low-level perceptual bias has on various aspects of everyday life.

– with inputs from Tasneem Chhatrisa.

Image Source – http://mediagallery.usatoday.com/Barcelona

#perceptualmotorsystems #fouls #brain #football #biases #soccer

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