Fans who angrily questioned several calls made by soccer referees in this year’s World Cup won’t be surprised at a report in the journal PLoS One that found inherent bias in referees.
They might, however, be surprised that the bias is perceptual. The study found that soccer experts whose languages read left to right call more fouls when the action moves in the opposite direction, or right to left.
“We are used to moving our eyes left to right so we have a preference for viewing events left to right,” said Alexander Kranjec, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania and the study’s lead author.
Because of this preference, events moving from right to left are perceived as atypical, and referees may be more likely to call fouls, Dr. Kranjec said.
Previous studies have suggested that such directional effects are reversed in those whose languages read from right to left.
“It would be interesting to do this with Hebrew- or Arabic-speaking soccer experts,” Dr. Kranjec said.
He and his colleagues conducted the study on varsity soccer players at the University of Pennsylvania. The players assessed foul calls on images of plays, and were then asked to do the same on mirror images of the same plays.
On average, they called about three more fouls on action going right to left.
The news is unlikely to have any application to disputed calls in soccer since the referee’s ruling is absolute. It would also depend on the position of the referee and the language or languages he reads. So there’s little chance that science will calm the arguments that are as much a part of the World Cup as the games themselves.