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The Fascinating Psychology of Penalty Kicks


The penalty kick, a pivotal moment in a soccer match, holds a remarkable power to expose the flaws in human psychology. Psychologists find these kicks fascinating, as they offer insights into our cognitive biases, interpersonal interactions, and judgment of others. While seemingly a simple act, penalty kicks embody a complex model that analyzes our decision-making processes. In this blog post, we delve into the intricacies of penalty kicks, explore the unconventional genius of Antonin Panenka’s 1976 kick, and uncover the behavioral biases that impact both players and goalkeepers.

The Unconventional Brilliance of Panenka’s Penalty

In 1976, with the World Cup hanging in the balance, Antonin Panenka stepped up to take the final penalty kick. Rather than relying on power or precision, Panenka audaciously executed a cheeky chip shot, delicately lobbing the ball into the net. This daring move, now known as a “Panenka,” has since been attempted by many players with varying degrees of success. While initially unconventional, Panenka’s approach holds more logical reasoning than meets the eye.

The Psychology Behind Penalty Kicks

Penalty kicks can be described as non-cooperative zero-sum games, where one player’s gain directly corresponds to the other player’s loss. Both players must decide where they will shoot before the ball is struck, as it takes only about 0.2 seconds to reach the net. The mathematician John Nash demonstrated that such games have an optimal strategy called a Nash equilibrium, which, in the case of penalty kicks, involves randomly selecting a shooting direction. However, when we examine the distribution of penalty kicks, we discover a different reality.

Researchers have analyzed the data from numerous penalty kicks and found interesting patterns. This analysis revealed that players tend to favor shooting towards the corners of the goal rather than aiming down the center. Additionally, goalkeepers exhibit a similar bias in their diving behavior. They predominantly avoid staying dead center and tend to dive to either side. This behavior is contrary to the Nash equilibrium and the optimal strategy for the game.

The Action Bias and Goalkeeper Strategies

The reason for goalkeepers deviating from the optimal strategy lies in a specific behavioral bias known as action bias. Action bias is the tendency to believe that doing something, even if non-ideal, is better than doing nothing. In the context of penalty kicks, goalkeepers feel the pressure to take action and make a dive, as standing still in the center might be perceived as not trying hard enough or lacking effort.

Action bias is not exclusive to soccer; it permeates various aspects of life. For instance, people often honk their car horns while stuck in a long traffic queue, despite knowing that it won’t expedite their progress. In the financial realm, individuals are drawn to speculative active investments, even though more passive strategies might be more successful in the long run. Action bias even affects decision-making in medicine, where doctors may choose to intervene with drugs, diagnostic tests, or surgeries when a reasonable and safe alternative would be not intervening.


The Paradox of Control

In an attempt to optimize penalty kicks, it may seem logical to pre-select where players should shoot and instruct goalkeepers where to dive. However, this approach encounters a paradox. By removing players’ agency and forcing them into a predetermined pattern, their performance actually suffers. People don’t necessarily need actual control; they only need to believe that they are in control to perform better.

Research has shown that individuals with a higher perception of control demonstrate improved performance and more positive attitudes towards various tasks. This phenomenon extends beyond soccer and into other domains such as education and medicine. Children who feel a greater sense of control exhibit more positive feelings towards education, while doctors who believe they have more control may be more inclined to choose interventions, even when a conservative approach might be equally effective.

Unraveling the Layers of Penalty Kicks

Penalty kicks offer a wealth of knowledge beyond the realm of soccer. They provide insights into emotional contagion, where one person’s emotional state can influence another’s. Mirror neurons, specialized brain cells, contribute to our ability to anticipate and respond to others’ actions. These mirror neurons may underlie the mechanisms behind how goalkeepers anticipate shot placement.

Antonin Panenka’s 1976 penalty kick serves as a testament to our flawed perception of behavior, risk evaluation, and pressure management, even at the highest levels of professionalism. His audacious decision to execute a Panenka showcased the layers of psychological intricacies at play during such intense moments. The impact of his choice extended far beyond a single kick, as it highlighted the biases and flaws inherent in human decision-making.

The Player Who Never Miss Penalty

Ledio Pano (Albania, 1986-2001) Midfielder Pano boasted a 100% record in over 50 penalties in his career in Albania and Greece, with one-time FK Partizani team-mate Niko Frasheri noting: “We had faith in him. His precision with those shots was second to none.” Pano, who spent hours practicing penalties after training sessions, added: “I never looked the keeper in the eye. I always just knew where I was going to put the ball.”


The penalty kick, far more than a mere lottery, represents a microcosm of human psychology. It exposes our cognitive biases, reveals our perception of control, and highlights the complexities of decision-making under pressure. Antonin Panenka’s iconic penalty kick demonstrates the layers of psychological intricacies at play during such moments. By understanding these dynamics, we gain deeper insights into our own behaviors, judgments, and the fascinating intricacies of the human mind.

Penalty kicks provide a unique window into the human psyche, offering valuable lessons that extend far beyond the soccer field. As we uncover the flaws in our decision-making processes, we become better equipped to navigate the challenges and complexities of life. The penalty kick, a master class in human psychology, allows us to explore our cognitive biases, understand our perception of control, and ultimately strive for more informed and effective decision-making in all aspects of our lives.


Bar-Eli, M., Azar, O. H., & Lurie, Y. (2009). (Ir)rationality in action: do soccer players and goalkeepers fail to learn how to best perform during a penalty kick?

Bar-Eli, M., Azar, O. H., Ritov, I., Keidar-Levin, Y., & Schein, G. (2007a). Action bias among elite soccer goalkeepers: The case of penalty kicks. Journal of Economic Psychology, 28(5), 606–621.

Foy, A. J., & Filippone, E. J. (2013). The case for intervention bias in the practice of medicine. The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 86(2), 271–280


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