Behavioural ScienceMichael Murphy

What an absolute VARce: the behaviour science of VAR in the World Cup

You'd have to be an technophobic hermit to have missed the fact that there is a World Cup going on. This quadrennial football feast is a spectacle unrivalled in terms of global audiences with this year's tournament expected to reach nearly half the world's population. 

What an absolute VARce: the behaviour science of VAR in the World Cup

With half the planet watching, the refereeing decisions that could seal the footballing fates of nations will be under more scrutiny than ever. It is therefore unsurprising that FIFA have taken the decision to implement a Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system to aid the men in the middle this summer. 

Football is very late to the party when it comes to adopting technology. A deep engrained conservatism in the beautiful game's corridors of power have meant football has long been bereft of the benefit of video replays. Meanwhile, sports like Rugby and American Football have used this video replay assistance successfully for years. Only recently has goal line technology been in use in the English Premier League, an innovation that would have been welcome in the 2006 World Cup when Frank Lampard's goal against Germany was incorrectly ruled out. However, great as this embrace of technology is, the move towards VAR is not without controversy as trials leading up to the tournament arguably showed the system was just as capable of creating confusion as it was of clearing it up.  

VAR only intervenes in the course of a match when the officials have made a 'clear and obvious error' in one of four key areas: goals, penalty decisions, red cards or cases of mistaken identity (e.g. booking the wrong player). But exactly what 'clear and obvious error' means is still the sore subject of bar rooms worldwide even as we enter into the latter stages of the tournament. So far, we have seen penalties equally given and refused for ostensibly very similar handball and holding incidents, as well as numerous referees waving away player calls to consult the new technology with their now ubiquitous, charades-style, TV hand gesture.

Given that grown men are still waving their fists in contempt at our men in black, despite VAR's introduction, is it time to call a real time out to review the underlying state of affairs? I'm not talking about cancelling the world cup, but rather acknowledging the cognitive biases that referees are under and the unconscious heuristics that VAR won't ever resolve. 

A quick search on Wikipedia reveals a staggering list of 175 potential cognitive biases that humans can face when making decisions. Not all are relevant to solving soccer's scraps but some certainly are. Buster Benson neatly summarises the four problems that these unconscious biases help us address as humans, but two in particular - being overloaded with too much information and needing to act quickly - are especially relevant to refereeing decision making. 

For VAR to be an aid to officials it really needs to help remedy the problem of these natural biases. However, it could be argued that VAR exacerbates rather than solves these issues. Looking at just four cognitive biases we can see that VAR in its current guise may not be the solution:

1. Anchoring leading to a confirmation or conservatism bias:  This is the tendency to rely too heavily, or "anchor", on one trait or piece of information when making decisions. In this context, this could be the original decision made by the referee. Referees are likely to fall foul of a natural tendency to search for, interpret, or focus on the information VAR provides that confirms their original decision or preconception of events. This is also confirmation bias or conservatism bias - the tendency to revise one's belief insufficiently when presented with new evidence.

2. The availability heuristic: The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to a given person's mind when evaluating a specific topic, concept, method or decision. Recent events in other games or leading up to the incident in question could easily play a part in the referee's decision. How often do we see teams penalty decisions, either for or against teams, even themselves out across the course of a game.

3. Framing effect: Drawing different conclusions from the same information, depending on how that information is presented. This is one bias that VAR could certainly contribute to. By showing the same incident from multiple camera angles at various speeds is supposed to help, but the opposite could be true.

4. Illusory truth bias:  This is a tendency to believe that a statement is true if it is easier to process, or if it has been stated multiple times, regardless of its actual veracity. Referees have players, fans and other officials constantly in their ear. This bombardment of information could easily persuade them one way or another.

We as fans are also likely to fall foul of cognitive distortion. Through partisan support we easily suffer naïve realism - the belief that we see reality as it really is, objectively without bias.

Common beliefs around the interpretation of rules, particular  across different footballing cultures, may also be a result of the 'availability cascade' - the self-reinforcing process in which a collective belief gains more and more plausibility through its increasing repetition in public discourse. The rules around hand ball spring to mind in this respect. What is common belief and what is in the official rules seem somewhat disconnected. Do referees even know the rules on this?! 

So, what is the solution?

Short of expecting fans to sympathise with referees, FIFA should be looking to a solution that reduces the mental challenges placed on their officials. This could be as simple as narrowing the variables involved in the VAR reviews,  framing decisions for the on-pitch referees in more binary terms or taking reviewed decisions out of their hands altogether (much like in rugby). More longer term, re-writing the rules to be more clear cut in current, 50:50 situations would also help. This would leave VAR to simply identify and replay missed incidents rather than open up a bigger can of heuristic worms for the referee to deal with.

As fans, knowing all of this won't help fix our shattered dreams when England inevitably go out on a dodgy-VAR decision, but it may at least save the referees from more vitriol than usual. Alternatively, if all this is a bit too much to take in then maybe just watch Love Island instead.


Michael Murphy

Associate Director

2CV London


If you want to think through the behaviour science of a decision your business is about to make - or apply behaviour science thinking to understand a product, service or communication you've already put in place - get in touch with the 2CV team. Our brains are weird, but sometimes predictably so, and we'd love to help.