The Psychology of Fairness

We want fair play in sports but overuse of technology removes our humanity.

Posted Jun 24, 2019

Because sports competitions combine organized activity with a desire to succeed there are rules in place to prevent cheating. To enable fairness and equity, really. There are numerous high stakes examples of potential unfairness in sport. Consider the Diego Maradona “hand of God goal” (wasn’t it a handball?) in the Argentina versus England 1986 World Cup or England’s controversial second goal versus Germany in the 1966 World Cup Final (did it go in?). These examples and many others raise are questions we want technology to help us answer. To keep things fair. These events and those like them ushered in the rise of replays and video review in many sports including NFL, NHL, MLB, and many football/soccer leagues. But just like any advances, introducing technological oversight into a human biological activity, you get more than you bargained for.

We all want fairness, whether it's in daily life or sporting competition. The term "level playing field" is used in regular conversation to capture this idea of equity and fairness. Central to the idea of fairness is the idea of catching out and preventing folks who want to cheat or seek an advantage against others. Those are all great motivations for trying to use technology and support to make sure that the correct calls are decisions are made. (Especially in the case of fake falling as I've argued before.)

A great example is the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France, where video assisted refereeing (VAR) has a dominant influence. In situations where somebody doesn’t intend to be offside and are marginally offside it’s relevant to consider if an edge were truly intended or was it actually not possible to determine. That is, could a human actually determine the difference seen in multi-angle slow motion. The “just-noticeable difference” is a concept in psychophysics that relates to how different a shape, a texture, or an object motion needs to be before we can determine a change. Along with this concept is an idea of variability or error that surrounds a robust threshold. This is an idea that needs implementation in sport if the obsession with video based assessment is really going to be fair to the humans involved in any sport.

But the idea of intent also matters, I think. That is did someone actually seek to have an advantage by their behavior, or did something happen that was hovering near that threshold of noticeable difference and was accidental and just part of trying to play the game? A great example is the offside in many sports. The idea of offside is that players might be cheating to gain advantage to receive and score. Video can help with this to verify where player are, but it's come down to trying to sort out whether or not a person is offside based on what they're trying to look at. In football/soccer, VAR uses the rubric that any part of the body that's closest to the line of defenders when the ball is moved forward. But in reality a human is really not trying to look for the feet or the trailing arm of a defender but instead looking for the opponent's body. That's where VAR fails because it draws a really tight line between those things humans really won’t notice and which are likely within human estimation error.

One of the great appeals of the beautiful game for me and many is that it's historically been relatively light on technology. That's the whole point. People can play football anywhere you can without a ball even, one can just be made from local materials. It's at the heart of making the sport the most accessible and played across our planet. It has its own rhythm and it's devoid of the intermittent arbitrary stops that we see in a game like the NFL or MLB. Which often take video review to the highest possible (and very often absurd) level. Hey, I like watching those sports too, but I don't like watching a football World Cup game that has become an NFL game. There are too many interruptions for too many decisions that seem to be based on the strictest possible interpretation of a rule without context and as if it were implemented as part of a computer simulation.

This is what bothers me about the application of technology in sport. I think it’s critical that a human could determine the difference we are using in video assessment because we have to be able to notice it for it to have meaning to us. I think that's the issue that many people have with technological encroachment. At the end of the day, sports are games played by humans. For now.

© E. Paul Zehr (2019)