Why Soccer (Football) Pundits Are Sheep – The Power of the Default Rule

2 Apr

The effect of referees’ calls on TV announcers illustrates a powerful rule for those trying to influence others’ choices

John Motson

(Update: Having spent a bunch more time with Behavioral Economics, I think the concept described below could also be described in different ways too, based on heuristics such as anchoring and social norms.  But to the extent the announcer “chooses” between the path already-chosen by the referee, and the alternative decision that could have been made, I think this article just about identifies an example of the Default option.)

I’ve started Dan Ariely’s awesome Duke course on Behavioral Economics called Irrational Behavior.  It’s free on Coursera.  Even though some of the material has overlapped my prior Stanford business school coursework, it’s a fascinating reinforcer of the many factors that influence decisions without our slightest conscious awareness.

Take, for example, the Default Rule.  It’s invaluable for anyone involved in UX and website design, product sales, or any form of communication seeking to motivate people to action.  (That last category almost certainly includes you.)

In a nutshell, the Default Rule is as follows: if people have the choice between staying on the path they’re already on, or choosing a new one, they’ll stay on their current path.  It’s easier not to choose anything at all than to choose something new.  The “default” is the current path we’re already on.

The best real world example is organ donation.  In three pairs of very similar countries, willingness to donate organs is amazingly different:

  • Denmark 4% – Sweden 86%.
  • Holland 28% – Belgium 98%
  • Germany 12% – Austria 99%

How can consent be so vastly different in such similar countries?  The answer: opt-in vs opt-out forms.  When you get a drivers license in Denmark, Holland and Germany, the form you fill out states (in essence) “check this box if you would like to donate organs.”  If you don’t place a check in the box, you don’t agree to donate.  The default is that you do not donate.

In the other countries, the form says the opposite: “check this box if you do not wish to donate organs.”  If you don’t place a check in the box, you are agreeing to donate.  The default is that you will donate.

The incredible differences in willingness to donate is explained by one simple but incredibly powerful design choice by the makers of the form (and the policy makers instructing them).  What is the default setting that people will affirmatively have to change to achieve a different result?  This is cool stuff.

So how does this relate to my favorite sport?

Well, I’ve always noticed something play-by-play TV commentators do.  When referees make decisions (calling a foul, not calling a foul), I’ve often felt the commentators were seeking to justify those decisions, even if the decisions were wrong.  Often times they seemed sufficiently questionable refereeing calls that I was surprised the commentators didn’t see what I was seeing.  And I never really understood why before thinking about the default rule.

Here are two great examples.  First, this bad tackle (you may have to endure 30 seconds of advertising with cool accents first – sorry!) was not penalized by the referee at the time, even though the player went off injured.  It was such a clear red card (ejection) that the referee was subsequently punished for missing it.  But listen to the commentators at the time – all they do is criticize the quality of the pass to the fouled player, and merely call the foul a “forceful” tackle.

Second, skip to 50 seconds of this video below, where the player was given a red card for a tackle.  The league later reversed the decision saying there was nothing wrong with it – it wasn’t a foul.  Nonetheless, the commentator justifies the referee’s red card, saying the bottom of the player’s “boot was raised” (meaning in a dangerous position) and that he made contact with the opposing player.

In both these scenarios, the commentators stuck with the default rule (the decision the referee had just made).  In the first video, the announcers disregarded the fact the player screamed in pain upon contact, and what they probably saw with their own eyes, because the referee had decided it was not a foul.

Granted, these people are human, and instantaneous decisions are never made with complete information.  But that’s the point.  It’s human nature to take the path of least resistance, even when it’s sometimes not in our interests, or contrary to the evidence we can see and hear right in front of us.

And this is powerful stuff to think about whenever trying to communicate choices or motivate someone to action.  What is the default path? How can you present information or choices to achieve your desired result?  Many organizations, entities and individuals have started to think about this, including websites, health care professionals, politicians, and retirement planners.  Practically every business, service or organization seeking to get clients or customers to act should incorporate this idea into their thoughts and business processes.

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2 Responses to “Why Soccer (Football) Pundits Are Sheep – The Power of the Default Rule”

  1. marshalp2013 April 2, 2013 at 5:44 am #

    I wish I had read a definition of the Default Rule years ago. With the rule clearly articulated, I might have been motivated to deviate from the “current path” more often!

    • olliebenn April 4, 2013 at 5:20 pm #

      Ha! Often small decisions involve default choices, and figuring out how to influence those small choices can often bring about big changes. (It’s also way easier to see how these things affect others than ourselves!).

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