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Everything you need to know about VAR and referee biases

Everything you need to know about VAR and referee biases

4 min read
  • Sport psychology

The start of the 2019-20 Premier League saw the introduction of Video Assistant Referees (VAR) for the first time. It quickly suffered from the Marmite Effect, with some loving it and others hating it, with some fans going so far as to say that “football is ruined”.

This got us thinking: if referees have been making mistakes that need to be corrected by a VAR, what are the psychological factors that caused them to do so?

How often are referees right?

How good are our referees?

Premier League referees make around 245 decisions per game on average, 200 of which are judging physical contact and disciplinary actions. This is equal to making a decision every 22 seconds. In fact, referees make 3 times more decisions than an average player touches the ball. It has been found that referees and their assistants make around 5 errors per game, meaning that they are right about 98% of the time.

So, what happens in the remaining 2% of decisions? Here’s a list of biases that can affect a football referee’s objectivity.

5 common subconscious biases for referees

The Crowd Effect

An interesting study showed that referees who watched a match back on the TV in silence made less favourable home decisions than compared to when they watched matches where they could hear the home crowd’s reaction. This shows that the atmosphere created by the crowd can influence a referee’s decisions.

This bias increases largely when there is no running track in the stadium and the crowd is closer to the pitch. For example, grounds like Old Trafford and Goodison Park can make referees more prone to this effect, as opposed to West Ham’s stadium.

The atmosphere may change a referee’s emotional response to a situation and thus subconsciously challenge their decision. It seems then that making decisions in isolation (like referees working at Stockley park do) may reduce the likelihood of this bias. For the time being, if you want to help your team as a supporter, here’s our guide to what football crowds should do.

The Home Advantage Effect

Interestingly, home teams tend to receive less yellow and red cards and have more added time when they are losing. Apart from football, in sports like boxing or events like the summer and winter Olympics where judges make subjective decisions about performances, home advantage can also be observed.

Importantly, research has shown that, since the addition of the additional referees (5th and 6th refs) in European football in the 2009- 2010 season, less biased decisions have been documented. This suggests that the addition of VAR might help reduce this cognitive bias for our referees. Aside from the referee’s decision, home advantage has also been shown to impact team performance. 

The Player Body Type Phenomenon

recent study investigated referees’ biases linked to players’ body type – and there were some fascinating results:

  • Those who were assumed to have committed fouls were on average taller than the fouled player.
  • When there is an unclear foul/ tackle situation, referees are more likely to attribute the foul to the taller player.
  • When smaller players go to ground, people tend to attribute it to a foul. However, when tall players go to ground, people tend to attribute it to a non-foul context.

We think this is another great example of where VAR will help referees make better decisions, without the influence of their subconscious bias about players’ body type.

The ‘Dirty Team’ Effect

When experts have to make quick decisions, they mostly rely on previous experiences and knowledge. If this is the case, do referees rely on their previous thoughts about a team rather than what is actually happening in front of them?

Interestingly, research has shown that referees who had been told that a team had an aggressive history were more likely to penalise them for fouls and responded to tackles differently than other referees who had not been given the team’s background. It’s incredibly difficult to minimise this type of bias, as we all use our memory to help form decisions. However, with the use of objective measure such as VAR to make decisions about fouls, this bias should be reduced.

A National Bias?

Although no referee squad and team are from the same country, often there are times when individual players are from the same country as the referee or assistants. This is the building blocks of own nationality bias.

Researchers tracked referee assignments over 12 seasons in the Champions League and found that, when a player is the same nationality as the official, the number of beneficial calls given to them was increased by 10% and even up to 15-20% in some cases for national team members during later stages of international tournaments. Although this doesn’t happen on purpose, it appears that if an official is judging a player from their country they are more lenient towards them. This of course is easily amended with objective decision-making methods such as VAR.

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Final thoughts

Whilst many would agree that there is a certain extent to which football can be predicted, the stats show it’s not always as clear cut as we think. So, while The Script is an impressive and very interesting piece of prediction, its findings should be taken with a grain of salt.

A sport psychologist’s tips for all teams this year would be to have realistic expectations, think clearly about what they need to do in order to win, never underestimate another team, know their roles within, have great preparation and learn to flourish and not wilt under the pressure of the Premier League.

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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