Three seconds or less

Three seconds or less

Experts know best when it comes to making split-second foul decisions in football

By Morgan Sherburne

In American football, fans may think they know how to best cry foul, but new research suggests experts’ training may not be going to waste — and shows how the way we read and write could affect the way we interpret situations.

The researchers found that the less experienced a person was with football, the more likely he or she was to call a penalty when presented with images that potentially showed pass interference, said Adam J. Woods, Ph.D., lead author of the paper and assistant program director of the Cognitive Aging and Memory Clinical Translational Research Program at UF Health. Pass interference occurs when a player on defense interferes with a receiver’s ability to catch a pass.

“The fans themselves who know football like the back of their hands or players who have played the game constantly since they were kids may be very different from people who are trained and have spent hundreds of hours learning how to make these decisions,” said Woods, also an assistant professor in the College of Medicine’s department of aging and geriatric research in the Institute on Aging. “We wanted to understand how expertise plays into being able to make these difficult decisions.”

The researchers also found that when the three groups of people involved in the study — people unfamiliar with football, players, and officials who were members of the National Collegiate Athletic Association — viewed the same images that had been reversed, the football naive participants and the officials’ rate of pass interference calls did not change. But the football players tended to call more pass interference.

This shows a spatial bias that tends to reveal itself when people view images in which the action is being read from right-to-left rather than the traditional left-to-right.

“Over the years, we’ve explored this general idea of whether people have a default representation of events moving from left to right, even when people see events that might be moving from right to left,” said Anjan Chatterjee, M.D., the chair of neurology at Pennsylvania Hospital and a member of the Center for Neuroscience and Society at the University of Pennsylvania. “We think now that in the frequent exposure in cultures that read from left to right, an acquired bias comes with that.”

Chatterjee, a co-author of the paper, said that the football-naive group didn’t show the bias because they had no frame of reference to which to compare pass interference. He said the officials likely were able to overcome the bias by quickly running the image through a learned checklist of what makes pass interference.

“They were responding not just to perceptual input, but also to all the cognitive rules applying to this situation,” Chatterjee said. “I think that ends up overcoming a lot of spatial bias most of us have.”
Although the players had familiarity with the game, they weren’t trained in the same way officials were.
“Officials go through a lot of highly developed training methods,” Woods said. “Players have intimate knowledge of the game and knew just enough to be dangerous.”

To test the participants, the researchers showed 95 images of potential fouls and intermittently flipped the images, so that each participant saw the images a total of 190 times. The participants had just half of a second to view a photo of a player attempting to catch a football. They then had three seconds to decide whether a picture depicted pass interference. The football-naive participants called pass interference 93.3 times while the football players called it 72.6 times and the officials 62.5 times.

Woods said decision-making in football was akin to daily, split-second decisions, such as those made in driving.

“As we go through the world and make decisions about information in our environment, one of the things this study relays is that we’re susceptible to a variety of biases,” Woods said. “The study shows that in any context that requires split-second decisions, the expertise effect demonstrates the need for experience in these situations, as well as the effect of these biases we have.”