May 15, 2015

Psychology for Referees - The Serial Position Effect or Why The First And Last Impressions Count

The human brain is undoubtfully the most valuable resource we have. The ability to think actively, to think about what others are very likely thinking right now, and even to think about how or what we ourselves are just thinking (theory of mind) is what distinguishes us from all other animals on this planet. But at the same time, our mind fools us many times a day. Actually every minute, maybe even every second: It is sometimes processing in a contradictory, illogical and distorted way. Biases are influencing our perception, interpretation and judgments in various situations – practically everywhere. And: Everybody is concerned! So are referees, referee managers and referee observers.  

As a student of business and economic psychology, I am going to share some of these biases with you, to present the implication and relevance for football refereeing and to attempt to find solutions of how you/we can control our mind. The disillusioning news beforehand: That’s hardly possible. It is actually impossible. The good news: Knowing these things can make you seek strategies how to correct subconsciously biased judgments a bit. And knowing these things can at least make you a bit wiser, as psychology is, in my view, always nice-to-know-about.

Today we start with one of these effects you have likely often encountered yourself in your everyday life. In future, I am planning to present you strategies and psychological theories that emphasize and enlighten performance improvement and one of the oldest questions of psychology: how to motivate people. Recent developments of some UEFA match officials show that this is a relevant topic in refereeing as well. And: Most of these theories and findings concern employees in the management sector. However, as referees fulfill many roles managers have to take as well, there are numerous overlaps that are worth to focus on soon (not now).

For the start I would like to ask you to quickly (!) read the following two personal descriptions in form of adjectives. Imagine that you are looking for a partner with whom you have to elaborate a presentation for a project in university, school or at your workplace. You will have to spend lots of time with him. Whom of the following two persons would you choose? Please decide spontaneously.

Alex:  intelligent – eager – determined – fact-orientated – stubborn – unpunctual
Ben:  unpunctual – stubborn – fact-orientated – determined – eager – intelligent

Assumed that you are reacting like most people, you probably chose Alex spontaneously. After thinking a bit about it, you might have recognized that Alex and Ben are characterized by the same traits. The adjectives are just written the other way round.
So, very likely your assessment was shaped by the first words you read, i.e.: by the first impression. Our mind processes such stimulus input, e.g. a word list, in a way that the first presented words overlay the following words. The first perceived input thus influences our judgments more than later words that are placed in the middle of a word list do. This is widely known as the primacy effect.

But also the opposite exists: the recency effect. While people usually remember first presented stimulus material better than following input, people also remember the most recent (i.e. last placed) input better than previously perceived material. This is e.g. the case when participants are asked to listen to a spoken word list instead of reading it on a sheet of paper. 

Taking both effects together, psychologists speak of the serial position effect. A famous and early representant of cognitive psychology formed this term: Hermann Ebbinghaus (1913). Later in 1962, Brodie & Murdock deepened the research on this effect. The classical finding is that accuracy in word recall is best for the first and last perceived stimulus items, while the middle was significantly worse remembered by the participants. These results can be illustrated in a so-called U-function (see the following image):

Most researchers have proven this phenomenon by using word samples and asking their participants to freely recall as many words as possible later on. But the effect is not limited to reading word stimulus. It affects our whole life. Probably you know this phenomenon yourself:
Having watched a film, you quite easily remember what happened in the first five minutes and you even very easily remember what happened in the last five minutes. And latter even weeks after you watched it (the recency effect is more resistant against losses over time than the primacy effect)! In the middle of the film, some stuff happened, yes, but you probably will not remember it that much in future. 
Or when I ask you to remember the referee appointments of the 2006 World Cup, you might remember that the opening day matches were refereed by Horacio Elizondo and Toru Kamikawa. For sure you will remember the exact appointments of the last 4 matches as well, not only because the matches were the most important ones of the tournament, but as your prefrontal cortex simply keeps them better in mind than a Matchday 2 Group G appointment. But ok, if you are referee enthusiasts as I am one, you probably remember them despite the effect.

How does it come to this effect?

There are multiple models to explain the serial position effect. To explain why the first impression sometimes counts more than the rest. But also to explain why you remember the last perceived stimuli better, if not best.
Most likely the primacy effect depends on rehearsal, as long as people are aware that they are tested in recalling words. When reading a word list e.g. starting with “MODEST”, “TREE”, “PENALTY” and later going on with many other words, people tend to rehearse the first items in their inner ear using their inner voice (repeating in mind: MODEST! MODEST! TREE! TREE! MODEST! PENALTY! PENALTY!...) even while reading the new items. So processing new material is slightly inhibited; the first perceived stimuli are rehearsed and encoded more deeply – and later easily retrieved. 

The recency effect rather crops up when there is more time between reading such words (or perceiving something else, e.g. listening to a speech, watching a referee performance…) and remembering them. In this case, the idea is that our memory’s storage has a limited capacity which means that the latest input suppresses or even displaces older one. 

Relevance of the effect

Of course, also these psychological findings have been (ab)used by media and marketing, but not only by them. 
When a newspaper journalist likes to indirectly influence the reader’s opinion, he will present key words, arguments favouring his view or persuasively written descriptions at the beginning of his article and specially in his last sentence. Same counts for TV news.
You will rarely find a renting agent who is not wearing a suit. You will rarely step a feet in an investment bank’s corporate headquarters without polished marble or comparable stuff at the walls. The first outer impression is supposed to positively prime the recipient (a potential client) for what follows inside.
When a website specialized in selling trips to your favourite holiday destination, the trip’s advantages will be placed at the beginning, likely already in a pleasant headline, and at the end of the site. Costs and limitations of the trip will be – if you are lucky! – presented in the middle.

And naturally the effect influences our life in a very trivial way. The described effect is why job applicants often invest more time and thoughts in looking perfectly, being well-dressed and having a gentle haircut than being prepared for questions or knowing the company they are applying for. The first impression counts! Nothing is more important than the first handshake, the first view words and the answer to the first question.

Relevance for Refereeing

The serial position effect is quite relevant for referees, but also their managers and observers.

As described for job applicants, the first impression is also vitally important for referees. And in this case I do not necessarily mean international match officials who are brought to the stadium in a van, wearing almost the same tracksuit with tie. I rather mean referees on lower division or even amateur level whose first impression can sometimes help to survive frustrated team officials, pubescent teenagers and their dedicated parents who are mentally participating in the game on the sideline - every amateur referee knows what I mean. 

Arriving at the home club, greeting the involved team managers and club responsibles, asking for your dressing room, determining when you are going to check the players’ passes and equipment: The way how you do that is already decisive for your later performance and maybe even the degree of acceptance you are going to reach. Arriving at the stadium too late, wearing sloppy sweatpants and nike airmaxes e.g. demonstrates a certain attitude to the game you are going to handle. Arriving in-time, being mentally alert, having chin up and chest out, being friendly and politely as well as wearing normal/professional clothes can however show respect from the first moment or impression on. And this might have an effect on how much respect is shown to you on the pitch.

And even on the field of play, the same counts. Your first whistle, its intensity, length, maybe even your gesture at the kick-off can contribute to a determined, authoritative, generous first impression – just in accordance with the approach and message you want to send. An example from UEFA Champions League: Martin Atkinson in Bayern München - FC Porto. At the coin-toss, the English official mixed up the home with the away team captain and asked Bayern captain Lahm to choose a coin's side. Lahm had to tell him that he needs to ask the guest captain (video at 9:00). What does this first impression tell the players and the TV spectators in the worst case: missing concentration.

This also counts for international referees, of course. Your fourth official, who is going to the technical meeting at the morning of the matchday, is kind of the first impression the team officials get of your refereeing team. So think about whom you want to represent you and think about how he or she presents your team.
Same goes for the recency effect. Keeping your concentration high until the end is crucial. Maybe there are only three or four minutes left on your watch. Maybe the home team are leading 4:0… but nonetheless, stay alert for everything. Even small mistakes resulting from a lack of concentration can tarnish the good and maybe even faultless performance you have previously delivered. And never forget: these mistakes will be remembered more than decisions you maybe took in minute 62 (also by your observer!).

At this point, you can already see the relevance for referee observers following the referee’s performance from the stadium’s seats. Actually all referee observers were referees themselves, UEFA’s observers once were international referees themselves, most of them are doing this job for many years. They are experienced. Again bad news: Being experienced does not make you immune for cognitive biases such as the serial position effect.
If you split a football match into two halves, it is pretty likely that you remember the first and last minutes of each half better than the middle of both halves. That’s also due to the mere circumstance that specially the first moments in the game are important for the way a match takes from the referee’s perspective. But it is also due to the previously described effect. The first impression counts. Mistakes and systematical weaknesses in the first or last 15 minutes might be more painful for the referee’s mark than problems between minutes 55 and 70.
And sometimes, normally (= illogically) thinking humans go a step farther: Once we have established a first judgment, we often subconsciously seek pieces of information that are congruent to it. This is known as the so-called confirmation bias. If we think that a referee has started poorly, we tend to be more sensitive to mistakes and weaknesses later on in the match – our perceived reality is blurred. At least that’s the theory. 

But as psychology is quite “trendy” and more and more anchored in common knowledge, we often attempt to correct biases from which we think that they exist. We could therefore also think: “Ok, the first 10 minutes were weak, but it’s too early for a judgment, I should not be biased too much!”. A study (Unkelbach, Ostheimer, Fasold & Memmert, 2012) has suggested that we tend to stay vague (good, ok, …) in our early assessments and become the more extreme the longer we e.g. watch a referee performance (excellent, very good – poor, disappointing). This attempt to correct the serial position effect is however a bias in itself, too: Referees showing deficits at the beginning of the match might benefit from it (“average” instead of “poor”), while referees who have a good start into the match might suffer (“ok so far” instead of “very good”). 

Referee observers should therefore be focused for 90 minutes + added time. They should try to refrain from too early positive or negative judgments. First watch all the input you get, then assess. That’s easier said than done! But there are ways how you can circumvent this effect.
A solution would be to write down small assessments in 10-minute-intervalls. The average of these scores (perhaps in form of +, o, - or even marks) can help you to keep an adequate overview on the entire performance, and not only on some passages of the match. And maybe re-watch some moments in the middle of the match. It might be that you forgot it (this does not happen to observers who are eager writers during the game! ;)).

Take Home Messages:

1)      The serial position effect means that the first input you perceive (primacy effect) and the most recent input you get (recency effect) influence our mind more than input perceived in the middle of something.
2)      It is almost impossible to control this phenomenon. Everybody is concerned.
3)      The first impression counts. There is no second chance for a first impression. If you are a referee, be aware of that. The way players and officials perceive you in the first moments of the game (body language, whistle language…), but also BEFORE the game (politeness, self-presentation, outward appearance), has a huge influence! It is not in your hands to fight this effect, but you have the chance to make the best of it and even benefit from the serial position effect!
4)      The last impression is not less important. Keep your concentration high until you leave the stadium!
5)      Referee observers, be aware: Your mind is more sensitive to the first and most recent input you perceive. But a match has 90+X minutes! Integrate everything into your judgment.
6)      But: Trying to correct this effect too much can punish those who were really good in the first moments of the game. So try to avoid global assessments at every moment of the match. Wait for the final whistle, re-watch some moments silently and come to your conclusions and recommendations.


  1. Anonymous16/5/15 10:05

    Very interesting and outstanding text. Underlines what I'm praying my younger referee colleagues for long time!!

  2. On a slightly related note, great documentary on the PGMOL in England:

    1. Good watch; cheers.

    2. too bad the video is geographically restricted :/


Copyright © . The 3rd Team
Theme Template by BTDesigner · Powered by Blogger