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The impact of the crowd's noise on referee decisions

The impact of the crowd’s noise on referee decisions

3 min read
  • Sport psychology

The margin between winning or losing in football is so small. This means that one little decision by the referee can have huge implications on the outcome of the match. The introduction of VAR (Video Assistant Referee) to the Premier League should help with this, but ultimately the decisions are made by a human. And human beings are vulnerable to the quirks of the brain. One such phenomenon, is how crowd noise can influence the referee…

What does the research say?

One particular study sought to investigate whether partisan crowd noise has an impact on the decisions made by qualified referees and whether this decision making was influenced by refereeing experience.

The researchers recruited 40 referees who ranged from newly qualified to having 43 years of experience. All referees were shown a video of a Premier League match between Liverpool (home) and Leicester City (away) and were asked to assess the legality of 47 challenges/incidents that occurred during the game. The video would stop for six seconds after each incident, which gave participants the opportunity to indicate whether they believed a home foul, away foul or no foul had been committed. They could also respond as uncertain.

Whilst all referees were shown the same video, half the referees were randomly allocated to the noise group, where the noise from the crowd was present, but the commentary had been removed, whilst other half were placed in the silent group where the video played on mute.

The researchers found that a noisy crowd increased referee uncertainty, such that referees in the noise group gave 15.5% fewer fouls against the home team in comparison to those in the silent group.

Why does crowd noise have such an impact?

The researchers went on to offer two differing suggestions as to why crowd noise may have so much influence on referee decision making:

Referees may be paying too much attention to the biased noise generated by the home crowd

A referee may fail to properly integrate the relevant visual and auditory cues and instead over-process crowd noise, meaning they will favour the home team and award fewer fouls against them.

One of the main causes of stress for a referee is a making a bad call against the home team

This is likely to encourage the supporting crowd to turn against them. Therefore, to stop this from happening and hence deal with the associated stress, referees may adopt a coping strategy known as avoidance, where they do not make unpopular decisions and penalise the home team when assessing less clear or contentious challenges.

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What other impacts can fans have?

In their post-match interviews, footballers often thank the crowd for their support, claiming that they were instrumental in lifting and spurring them on. Such statements are supported by research, such that in one particular study it was found that giving athletes frequent encouragement increased their effort levels by up to 7%. Other research has found that combining this verbal encouragement with visual encouragement, (as often seen in matches when fans hold scarves above their heads), can even help reduce player physical fatigue.

Fans looking to encourage their team should also try to remain positive throughout the game – which is easier said than done when your team’s play is poor or frustrating. Positive facial expressions from supporters may just give your team the extra boost they need, with research finding that seeing a smiling face led to athletes working at maximum effort for up to 12% longer than those who saw negative faces.

For more information on the importance of the crowd at a football game, check out these blogs:

Final thoughts

Whilst human error is inevitable, the sheer scale of the impact that a noisy home crowd can have makes for interesting reading. Whilst crowd noise and vocal fans are inevitable, it may be that increase referees’ awareness of the crowd noise’s impact, they could then limit the number of incorrect decisions they make. Similarly, with the increasing use of VAR, it may be worth exploring how referees cope with the crowd noise when they are reviewing the footage by the side of the pitch…

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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