Why Referees Cant Possibly Get It Right: The Neuroscience of Intention and Attention

Discussion in 'Columns' started by Thesoccershrink, Dec 28, 2010.

  • by Thesoccershrink, Dec 28, 2010 at 2:36 AM
  • Thesoccershrink

    Thesoccershrink Member

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    As a psychologist and founder of both the Rankin Center for Neuroscience and The American Brain Association I know something about the relationship between the brain and consciousness. And I can tell you this: consciousness is over-rated. The fact is that we often experience things AFTER the brain has reacted, and we often have the sense that we were in control of the action whereas, in fact, we had no such conscious control.
    There’s a distinction to be made between pre-meditated action, one that is intended and planned, and experience, which is conscious recognition of our brain’s innate, instinctive or well-rehearsed automatic routines, which occurs after the fact.

    This distinction is relevant to all aspects of life including sport. (Check out our sports division at www.therankincenter.com/sportsdivision.html). Take the golf swing, for example. You swing the club while focusing on the target, trusting your neuromuscular routine that is your swing. But your brain realizes half-way this particular swing that it is not going to be able to maintain balance and hit the ball squarely and thus adjusts the stroke making you hitch. About 300 milliseconds after your brain has done this you realize that you have altered your stroke. But actually your brain has altered your stroke and you have only become aware of it after the event. Of course, your playing partners watching will say, “You adjusted half way through your shot,” but actually you, consciously, did not do any such thing. It wasn’t intentional in the sense of planned pre-meditated action. (Of course, there are times when people do consciously focus on their swing and as a result totally interrupt the automatic neuromuscular routine often leading to a poor shot. If you’re really interested please check out my workbook The Seven Mental Challenges of Golf at www.scienceofyou.com. Video out very soonJ)

    You can see where I am going with this. A player, just let’s say its Jermain Defoe, jumps for the ball and hits the defender in the face with his elbow. Unless Defoe takes a very, very deliberate shot with his elbow, there’s no way anyone can accurately impute intent. His elbow might hit the defender, it might concuss him, but only Defoe himself can know whether it was his planned, conscious, pre-meditated intent to hit the defender in the head with his elbow. Let’s take another situation -- deliberate handball. When an object is hurtling towards your head it is the brain’s instinctive reaction to duck and put up your hands to protect yourself. You do not do this consciously. You are aware of doing it but it is not a consciously planned action. It is no more intentional than withdrawing your hand from a hot stove is intentional, although you’re conscious of both experiences.

    In sport, professional players have very well rehearsed neuromuscular routines. A batsman for example has learned to identify certain types of delivery and instantly produces a stroke to match the ball’s trajectory. His every stroke isn’t consciously planned! There’s not enough time, especially with fast bowling, to fully assess the delivery, think about it and choose a shot. Which is why when the very fast ball does something different than expected, there’s very little or no time to adjust consciously – instead there’s just an instant reaction, which the batsman is aware of a third of a second after his brain has made it.

    Given the distinctions between highly practiced neuromuscular routines, instinctive reactions, pre-conscious brain behavior and pre-meditated planning, I believe it is very, very difficult if not impossible in all but the most blatant of situations for a referee to impute intent with any accuracy or reliability.

    So, in short, this whole “intent” thing is a load of nonsense.

    And while I’m talking about experience and delays in conscious processing, let me add that it is not possible to look at two places at the same time and judge the relationship between them reliably. For example, if you’re watching a player pass the ball and then switch your attention to the most advanced forward, it takes 300 milliseconds to shift attention. In that time a striker can move a foot or so forward -- and so can a defender. It’s simply not possible to look at two places one after the other and reliably judge them as synchronous events. That the assistant referees get an offside decision right as often as they do is a minor miracle.
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Discussion in 'Columns' started by Thesoccershrink, Dec 28, 2010.

  1. bigspurs
    I understand where you're coming from with this doc and I do find it all very interesting. Although I think I may have strained my brain in the process! I think you'll find however that this is a football forum and not one for advanced psychology and nueroscience studies!
  2. Jeremy
    What he is saying is that we was robbed with Defoe's sending off.
  3. johnno
    Whether it's a subconscious or a conscious decision, there is such thing as deliberate - but defoe's wasn't deliberate despite the fact he may have known the possible outcome of his leap. I agree with the offside thing, that is what you call ultimate concentration from the Lino's part! They're obviously trained to overcome the 0.03 second rule or they're just lucky
  4. Peters
    The comment is about Defoe, but it also applies to the ref, the linesman and the player fouled.

    The ref clearly went for his right pocket to brandish a yellow card until the linesman indicated "intent", so went for the red in his left pocket (so Andy Gray said). Collins went down like a sack of spuds - was that rehearsed - it was his reaction/ acting that "confirmed" the assault.
  5. boris
    Interesting stuff.

    What if you jump with the intention of heading the ball and elbowing the defender, so that one might come off if the other doesn't, or they might support each other, and both are neurally trained events which occur unconsiously in under 0.3 seconds? Could that happen? Intent would then be pushed back a step, but it's still intent.
  6. Thesoccershrink
    If you jumped with the conscious intent of harming the defender regardless of whatever else you might intend, then that is intent. It would be very difficult for someone else, e.g., an official, to reliably impute that, however, unless it was very blatant.
  7. Paxtonite
    "Deliberate" implies intent which in turn implies conscious thought!
  8. Spur-of-the-moment
    Apart from the needless, spectacular self-promotion, I liked your argument for the separation of 'intention' (in the sense of planned, pre-meditated action) and conscious experience.

    But, despite your worthy ambition, this is not relevant to sport or, if it is, we know about it already.

    We already know full well about the notion of rehearsed neuro-muscular routines outside conscious intention. We talk, for example, about 'muscle memory'. By the way, on the last point, we also know about the impossibility of off-side decisions in certain situations.

    However, the main flaw in this article is that it mistakes a 'legal' notion of intention from a 'psychological' one. The laws of football are indifferent to psychological intention, they are influenced by a concept of intention taken from the criminal law.

    Hence, for example, a person who has not intended to do harm, but who is negligent as to whether harm may be caused, is nonetheless liable in criminal law. Another, related, instance is the person in a fight who stabs and kills his combatant. He may not have planned or intended to kill the other person but he is still liable for manslaughter or even murder. More generally, the criminal law does not require an analysis of the psychological processes leading to an act. Indeed, it may impute intention from action alone.

    So, in your example of dangerous play in football, all that is required is for a player to be 'negligent'. The words used in The Laws of the Game are 'careless, reckless or using excessive force'. No psychological 'intention' required. Among other actions, these words apply to tackling, jumping at, pushing, kicking and even striking an opponent. Defoe didn't need to have constructed a plan to risk harm to another player in advance. This idea of 'intention' is irrelevant here.

    Actually, it doesn't even need to be 'deliberate', which I think is something you have forgotten in the Laws of the Game. It's also worth pointing out that the term 'intention' (or rather 'intentionally') is less important than the term 'deliberate' in The Laws of the Game. When the term 'deliberate' is used, it approximates to the legal notion of intention. Again, the psychological notion is irrelevant.

    A direct free kick will be awarded for 'deliberate' handball, but this kind of decision tends to attract more controversy if it is in the area and results in a penalty. In fact there is confusion, but the idea of trying to disentangle this difficulty using a notion of psychological intention is likely to cause more confusion. If a player passes a ball to a team mate, this is legitimately described as a deliberate action. But it could be done almost reflexly as in a give-and-go, or at least as a rehearsed neuro-muscular routine. It may not be 'intentional' but it is certainly deliberate. Thus when defending a free kick as part of a wall inside the penalty area, players have to unlearn those reflexes to raise their hands, otherwise they risk giving away a penalty. If you raise your hand and ball hits hand, then tough. That's why training should work on unlearning key reflexes (another one to be unlearned is turning away from, rather than making your body big in front of, a shot). By the way the criminal law would not see a simple physical reflex as an intentional action in the meaning of intent given in the law. But a game of football is different, of course. Several kinds of reflex are unlearned as part of football training, and the rules of football reognise this.

    Most commentators fail to understand the difference between 'deliberate' and 'intentional' when penalties are awarded for handball, so your error is understandable. But it nevertheless remains a mistake.

    So, keep up the psychology, but be careful when trying to apply it to the game of football. It definitely has its uses, but is irrelevant in the argument you are trying to make. By the way, do read The Laws of the Game.

  9. guate
    And here I was thinking the average Spurs fan is that just that, average. Do we have any rocket scientists on here too ?
  10. Locotoro

    You beat me to it :grin:

    PS: In criminal law a person who has not intended to cause harm but does may be considered "reckless" as to causing that harm. Negligence is a tort or a civil wrong, recklessness is the criminal state of circumstance. Its worth clarifying because the standards of proof are different in both situations.

    But aside from that all very good
  11. Thesoccershrink
    Except that in law there is also the notion of mitigation. Where does that fit in the laws of the game? And does that take into account "intention." In all the legal cases I've been expert witness in, it seems to have been very relevant.
  12. Bilko
    I guess you could compare Defoe`s unintentional foul with a re-adjusted golf swing, but following this line further cannot produce anything positive for a sport where the ball is always moving.
  13. JimmyG2
    I'm not sure that you have thought this through, after all it is obviously not rocket science.

    Defoe didn't intend to hit the defender in the face: what would have been the point of that? Unless of course he was privy to information about the defender's treatment of one of his female siblings.

    But he ran and jumped in a way that might result in such an outcome,
    So there is no intent, it was not deliberate but it was reckless.
    Sorry if that repeats what has already been said as I can't follow some of it.
    Now rocket science and I'm your man

    Light blue touch paper and retire immediately. Simples.
  14. JimmyG2
    Just realised this is a hoax.
    'The American Brain Association'
    President is Dubya I suppose.
  15. Spur-of-the-moment
    First, 'mitigation' tends to be used in the criminal law more as something that reduces punishment rather than as something that impairs or reduces intention. One exception is the law in relation to murder in which there are specific circumstances that reduce intention from the level of murder to that of manslaughter (and, further, the rare-as-hens'-teeth plea of 'not guilty by reason of insanity' where the legal notion of intention is absent). I'm sure a legal eagle might point out other rare exceptions (e.g. certain case-law on shoplifting, etc.).

    Second, if mitigation is used in criminal law in relation to intention, it is still not related to your psychological notion of intention.

    Third, The Laws of the Game don't use the word, or the concept, of 'mitigation'.

    The notion of mitigation doesn't help your argument, nor does it affect mine.

  16. Thesoccershrink

    I'm still having difficulty understanding the judgment of recklessness. Is there a difference in law between these two situations?

    A player slips and in so doing knocks another player down hard.

    A player dives in and in so doing knocks a player down hard.

    I'm still having a hard time getting my head around the fact that officials do seem to make judgments based on their perceptions and interpretation of events. Surely there is a grey area here, regardless of how clear the laws of the game are?
  17. Spur-of-the-moment

    I assume you are abandoning the original argument for a wider consideration of a notion of psychological 'intention' in refereeing decisions. Good idea. But wait, are you still trying to smuggle it in via a notion of the referee's judgement of mitigation?

    My point is quite simple. Referees make judgements legally rather than psychologically. This is what is required of them: psychology does not help. In fact it gets in the way.When we examine referee decision-making, the notion of the footballer's psychological intention is of no use to us at all.

    By the way, there is no 'law' of any kind that does not require interpretation and judgement. 'Law' generalises and cannot take into account every possible, specific circumstance. That's where judgement comes in. The Laws of the Game, like every legal system, require improvement. But they can never eliminate uncertainty, cases that fall into grey areas, or the need to interpret and make judgements. That's the nature of 'law'.

    Your example is easily judged in a legalistic way. In neither case will the referee assess whether there is, to use your words, a 'planned, pre-meditated' intention to hurt or injure the player. That is not required by the Laws. Indeed, for a player to 'slip' and injure another could well be seen as careless or even reckless, perhaps through sheer clumsiness, or lack of care for a slippery surface (in the rain, for example), or wearing the wrong studs. Of course the referee will make a judgement, and, of course, the rules are open to interpretation. But it is not a matter of judging the degree of 'intention' in the sense you mean.

  18. Thesoccershrink
    We could go on indefinitely here I think :) I appreciate you clarifying the legal position on intention but I still need to mull over the role of the psychological processes that inevitably go into the perception and judgement of any situation. I think I understand the legal requirement but I'm haven't yet reached the point where I am convinced that regardless of what is legally required, referees still don't judge player's intent, as that is so inherent in our perception of any situation. Perhaps good referees do judge intent but then discount it, as apparently required by the law?
  19. Spur-of-the-moment
    I'm sure you're right. A number of cultural 'reflexes' (as it were) may arrive in the minds of referees. One that is close to what you are talking about is the question, 'but did he mean it?' But, as you say, referees are trained to know by heart the Laws and understand that this is not a relevant question. Of course referees may be unconsciously influenced by a whole culture of accountability, excuses, and so forth. Just as they are clearly influenced, when they shouldn't be, by the status of the players and teams in front of them.

    More interesting, perhaps, is the way in which our commentators and pundits, as well as supporters, are influenced by a language of intention and excuse when it isn't relevant to the Laws. Related to this is a personal bugbear, the way in which many are prepared to moralise about particular kinds of player behaviour where 'morality' is irrelevant. The term 'cheat', for example, is flung around with abandon without any understanding of what it actually means.

    Anyway, good luck in your psychological endeavours.


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