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Psychological pressure in competitive environments: Evidence from a randomized natural experiment

  • Economics
  • Psychology


Much like cognitive abilities, emotional skills can have major effects on perfor mance and economic outcomes. This paper studies the behavior of professional subjects involved in a dynamic competition in their own natural environment. The setting is a penalty shoot-out in soccer where two teams compete in a tournament framework taking turns in a sequence of five penalty kicks each. As the kicking order is determined by the random outcome of a coin flip, the treatment and control groups are determined via explicit randomization. Therefore, absent any psychological effects, both teams should have the same probability of winning regardless of the kicking order. Yet, we find a systematic first-kicker advantage. Using data on 2,731 penalty kicks from 262 shoot-outs for a three decade period, we find that teams kicking first win the penalty shoot-out 60.5% of the time. A dynamic panel data analysis shows that the psychological mechanism underlying this result arises from the asymmetry in the partial score. As most kicks are scored, kicking first typically means having the opportunity to lead in the partial score, whereas kicking second typically means lagging in the score and having the opportunity to, at most, get even. Having a worse prospect than the opponent hinders subjects' performance. Further, we also find that professionals are self-aware of their own psychological effects. When a recent change in regulations gives winners of the coin toss the chance to choose the kicking order, they rationally react to it by systematically choosing to kick first. A survey of professional players reveals that when asked to explain why they prefer to kick first, they precisely identify the psychological mechanism for which we find empirical support in the data: they want “to lead in the score in order to put pressure on the opponent.”

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