JOURNAL OF SPORT & EXERCISE PSYCHOLOGY, 2001, 23, 254-259
© 2001 Human Kinetics Publishers, Inc.
Sequential Effects in Important Referee Decisions:
The Case of Penalties in Soccer
Henning Plessner and Tilmann Betsch
University of Heidelberg
In a study on penalty decisions in soccer, 115 participants made decisions as
referees for each of
videotaped scenes from an actual match. In three scenes,
defenders committed potential fouls in their penalty area. The first two scenes
involved the same team and the third scene occurred in the opposite penalty
area. Consistent with the assumption that judges' initial decisions have an
impact on later decisions, we found a negative correlation hetween partici-
successive penalty decisions concerning the same team, and a positive
correlation between successive penalty decisions concerning first one and then
the opposing team.
Key words: applied social cognition, judgment biases in sports, concession
Whether or not to award a penalty in a given situation is a very important
decision in soccer matches. For example, Germany won the World Cup Final in
1990 against Argentina, 0:1, by scoring the only penalty-kick of that match. Ac-
cording to the rules of the Federation Internationale de Football (FIFA), a penalty
should be awarded against a team that commits an offense inside its own penalty
area, for example tripping an opponent. Earlier decisions in the match should have
no influence on a penalty decision. In media reports, however, it has frequently
been alleged that referees tend to make so-called concession decisions. Most in-
triguing is the claim that the probability of awarding a penalty to a team in an
ambiguous foul situation increases if no penalty has been awarded to the same
team in a similar situation before.
This phenomenon, which constitutes a type of contrast effect in a sequence
of important decisions, also seems to be obvious to those who frequently view
sports games. Still, media reports and sports fans could be wrong and it may be
that this contrast effect does not really exist. To the best of our knowledge, to date
there has been no empirical evidence for such an effect. Although there is some
research on the specific tasks of judges, umpires, and referees in sports (Ford,
The authors are with the Psychological Institute, University of Heidelberg, Haupt-
69117 Heidelberg, Germany.
Penalties in Soccer / 255
Gallagher, Lacy, Bridwell, & Goodwin, 1997; Mohr & Larsen, 1998; Oudejans,
Verheijen, Bakker, et
2000; Plessner, 1999; Ste-Made & Lee, 1991), the possi-
bility that sequential effects could make their way through the repetition of similar
decisions has been almost completely neglected.
Some researchers have argued that decisions of officials in sports can be
product of social information processing (Frank & Gilovich, 1988;
Plessner & Raab, 1999). From a social psychological point of view, it is not sur-
prising that people's judgments can be influenced by their earlier decisions
(Festinger, 1957). Some models in social cognition have even tried to predict the
exact circumstances that lead to divergent contrast and assimilation effects in so-
cial judgments (Schwarz & Bless, 1992; Stapel & Winkielman, 1998). According
to these theoretical approaches, such effects can occur spontaneously, without the
possibility of being consciously controlled by the individual. However, most of
these models would predict—to the extent that they are applicable to the present
context—an assimilation (i.e., a positive correlation) rather than a contrast effect
a negative correlation) in a sequence of penalty decisions.
The goal of the present study was to answer the following questions:
there, in general, contingencies between successive penalty decisions? (b) Does
the probability of awarding a penalty to a team increase if no penalty has been
awarded to that team in a similar situation before? (c) If contingencies were to be
found, are they specific to penalty decisions or are they but a general phenomenon
of decisions made by referees in a soccer match?
A total of 115 German male participants, 58 licensed referees and 57 soccer
players, took part in the experiment. The mean age of the referees was 31.6 years
12.1) and they averaged 5.7 years of experience as referees
= 9.6). The
players averaged 23.5 years of age (SD
8.2) and had some experience as refer-
ees in training matches but were not licensed referees. Data were collected at dif-
ferent sport locations, such as soccer clubs. At each location the participants were
randomly assigned to one of four experimental conditions, always including the
two focused in this report (see below). As a reward for their participation, they
took part in a lottery. The prize of the lottery was a subscription to the German
soccer journal Kicker, which had a value of approximately $150 at the time.
Materials and Design
Participants had to make decisions for each of 20 videotaped scenes from a
soccer match in the Spanish Primera Division (Rayo Vallecano vs. Real Madrid,
November 6,1999). We had chosen this match from a pool of about 50 video-
taped matches according to several criteria such as good visibility in different scenes
and the likelihood that German participants were not familiar with
of our participants indicated that he was famiUar with the match before the experi-
ment. Most important, the match contained two successive ambiguous foul scenes
inside the penalty area of one team and a third ambiguous foul scene inside the
256 / Plessner and Betsch
penalty area of the opposing team.' It also contained a similar sequence of poten-
tial free-kick scenes.
Oti the videotape, both sequences—potential penalty and free-kick situa-
tions—were filled with scenes in which the ball was kicked outside the field and
participants had to decide, for example, which team was to continue the match.
Further ball-out and free-kick situations were included on the tape to dilute the
salience of the target sequences. Each scene was announced by showing the minute
of play. The scene continued until a question mark appeared on the screen. All
scenes were stopped before the decision of the original referee became clear. No
score was visible in any scene, and no goal was shown.
For about one-third of the participants
= 43), the videotape was edited so
that instead of the first foul scene inside the penalty area, a ball-out situation ap-
peared on the screen. We expected the remaining participants (n = 72) to divide
into two groups based on their
(a) those who award a penalty in the first
scene, and (b) those who do not. Therefore, we would be able to compare the
probability of awarding a penalty in the second scene under three conditions: no
prior penalty decision; penalty awarded in a prior situation; or no penalty awarded
in a prior situation.
Before the test phase began, participants had to make decisions in three prac-
tice trials in which scenes were presented from different European league matches
(one free-kick and two ball-out situations).
Participants were asked to make decisions for several scenes as if they were
real referees in a soccer match. Starting with a training phase, a scene was shown
on the television screen until the experimenter stopped the videotape. Then par-
ticipants immediately had to announce their decisions (e.g., free-kick for the team
in blue), which were recorded by the experimenter. Then the next scene appeared
on the screen. After the practice phase, participants were told the test phase would
now begin and that all following scenes were from the same match in which they
would have to act as referee. Following the decisions for all 20 scenes, participants
were given a small booklet with questions concerning personal data, including
questions about their experience as referees. Furthermore, they were asked if they
had previously seen the scenes used in the experiment or knew anything about that
Itiitial analyses showed that decisions (e.g., relative frequency of free-kicks
or penalties awarded) did not depend on whether the judges were referees or play-
Indeed, there were no significant differences between referees' and players'
decisions for any of
20 scenes of both videotapes. Therefore, the data for refer-
ees and players were collapsed for the following analyses.
'As a single case of evidence for the assumed contrast effect, the original referee
awarded a penalty only in the second situation, although slow-motion video show that in
comparison to the
scene, the defender's offense was less clear in the second scene.
Penalties in Soccer / 257
Participants' decisions for the three foul scenes inside the penalty areas were
each categorized as "penalty awarded" (e.g., penalty and warning) and "no pen-
alty awarded" (e.g., comer).
We found that the penalty decisions of participants who had to decide for the
first two penalty scenes that involved the same team were negatively correlated,
O = -.29, p = .023. In fact, not a single participant awarded a penalty in both
situations. Compared to those who saw a ball-out situation instead of the first foul
scene in the penalty area (no prior penalty decision), the probability of awarding a
penalty in the second scene decreased when they had awarded a penalty before
(penalty awarded in a prior situation) and increased when they had not (no penalty
awarded in a prior situation), F(2, 112) = 4.12, p
.019, as shown below:
• No prior penalty decision (rt = 43): 18.6%
• Prior penalty decision—
- Penalty awarded (n = 13): 0%
- No penalty awarded (n = 59): 33.9%
Because of the negative correlation between the decisions concerning the
first two scenes, we calculated a score for all participants that indicated whether
they awarded a penalty at all in one of the first two scenes. Thus we were able to
compare the penalty decisions concerning first one and then the opposing team
over all experimental conditions. In contrast to the decisions concerning the same
team, we found a positive correlation between this score and the decisions made
for the foul scene inside the opposite penalty area,
= .30, p = .029. Therefore,
awarding a penalty to one team increased the probability of giving a penalty to the
opposing team, f(l
p < .029, as shown below:
• No penalty awarded (n = 62): 22.6%
• Penalty awarded (« = 53): 41.5%
Taken together, whereas the finding concerning successive penalty decisions
about the same team suggests a contrast effect, the finding concerning successive
penalty decisions about first one and then the opposing team suggests an assimila-
Analogous to the analyses of the penalty decisions, we calculated correla-
tion coefficients for the sequence of three free-kick decisions. Neither successive
decisions concerning the same team nor successive decisions concerning first one
and then the other team correlated significantly, O =
p = .59, and 0 =
respectively. Hence, decisions in free-kick situations were independent of ear-
lier decisions in similar situations.
258 / Plessner and Betsch
This study provides empirical evidence for the claim that important referee
decisions, such as awarding a penalty in a given situation, are influenced by previ-
ous decisions in sitnilar situations. The probability of awarding a penalty increased
if no penalty had been awarded to the same team before. Moreover, we found a
negative contingency between successive penalty decisions concerning the same
team and a positive contingency between successive penalty decisions concerning
first one and then the other team. In contrast to what is prescribed by the FIFA
when evaluating a given situation, referees, as well as soccer players acting
as referees, were biased by their own earlier
Nonetheless, these findings
held only for penalty decisions. Decisions in less important free-kick situations
were not influenced in the same manner, as is evident from the absence of signifi-
cant correlations between them.
An obvious difference between penalty and free-kick decisions is the fact
that the latter are much more frequent in a match than penalty decisions. Further-
more, the consequences of penalty decisions are much more significant because
they can determine the winner and loser of a game. In light of the importance of
penalty decisions, referees' judgments may reflect a compromise between actual
observations and some "unwritten rules" associated with penalties. It has been
shown in other sport contexts that such unwritten rules can bias the judges' deci-
sions (Plessner & Raab, 1999). For example, gytnnastics judges were found to be
systematically infiuenced by the unwritten rule that gymnasts are typically placed
in rank order from poorest to best for a team competition (Scheer, 1973).
In the present context, it is likely that the possibility of awarding a penalty is
perceived as an option that one should not take too often. This unwritten rule could
partly explain the contrast effect in successive penalty decisions concerning the
same team. That is, once participants awarded a penalty to a team, they are as-
sumed to shift their criterion for awarding a penalty to the same team to a higher
level in subsequent situations. This process corresponds to predictions for succes-
sive judgments that can be derived from Martin's (1986) set-reset model of im-
pression formation. Moreover, penalty situations may result in decisions that are
somewhat equality-oriented (Van Lange, 1999). This orientation could lead to a
concession decision, as a kind of summary response to repeated oiJenses, as well
as to the assimilation effect we found when both teams were involved. These as-
sumptions, however, are only speculative so far. The present study provides a use-
ful setting for further studies of sequential effects, or biases, and their underlying
cognitive mechanisms in important decisions on the part of referees.
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We thank Birgit Koopmann, Irena Ebert, Susanna Jeschonek, Dorothee RandoU, Saskia
Lang, Pascaline Herzenstiel, Ulrike Bechstedt, Dorte EisenbeiB, Sebastian Stehle, Elke
Ltidemann, Nils Kaltenbach, Katharina Stocklas, AJmut Stromberger, and Manuel Lucas
for their help with conducting the study; Thomas Zink for his support concerning the cut-
ting of the videotapes; Ukich Mueller, Blair Johnson, and Thomas Mussweiler for their
helpful comments on an earlier draft of this manuscript; and the German soccer journal
Kicker for sponsoring our study by giving us a subscription as reward for our participants.
May 24, 2000
March 15, 2001