October 05, 2010

Behavioural Ecology Meets ... Soccer

Gwen, Sean and Bill have just returned from the 13th International Behavioural Ecology Congress, held at the Perth Convention Centre, Australia. Those of us left behind here in Brisbane are pretty jealous! Why? Well, Perth is lovely – and who doesn’t enjoy a conference in a place known for its fantastic climate, food, and microbrew
beers? Plus it was a great opportunity to meet behavioural ecologists from around the world.

Bill, Candice, Sean & Gwen

Behavioural ecologists study … behaviour. But it’s not just about going out and watching animals mate – researchers make observations and design experiments to test particular questions, often using theoretical models to predict what they’ll find.

The benefit of using theory is that it allows scientists to test really general ideas using any number of different systems. For example, let’s think about dishonesty. A lot of humans and other animals use dishonesty as a means to obtain something they want – such as mates or food. (This might sound familiar?) There are theories out there that suggest the circumstances under which an individual should be honest versus dishonest. The job of the scientist is then to collect evidence to show whether the theory, as it exists currently, is valid. If it’s not, then a new and improved theory can be put forward.

But enough about that – let’s get to the really cool part. In her PhD work, Gwen has been applying theories of dishonesty to soccer match behaviour. This is really novel and exciting because most tests of behavioural theory are done on animals other than humans.

When are soccer players dishonest? If you’ve ever watched a soccer match, I’m sure you’ve seen a dive. A dive is when a player pretends to have been fouled by an opponent. So those instances when you see the (untouched) striker leaping through the air, then crashing to the ground and clutching the (untouched) ankle as he or she rolls around, moaning ... those are dives. This is just an example - of course it's not always the striker who dives (right, Robbie?).

At the Behavioural Ecology conference, Gwen presented her research looking at what factors influence the frequency of diving in soccer and also the responses given by referees. Some of the factors included the league, score, and home vs. away status. She analysed hundreds of hours of video footage of professional men’s leagues from Europe and Australia to answer the questions – When does diving occur? And how are referees likely to respond to dives? Knowing these answers will help leagues better manage diving behaviour, which can be a big problem.

So what did she find? We can’t quite tell you yet – Gwen’s in the process of publishing this data and we don’t want to spoil the surprise. But she did find that it was more advantageous for players to dive (or be dishonest) under particular conditions. And that referees were more likely to award fouls based on dives under particular conditions. A really cool test of behavioural theory!

If you have questions, please contact Gwen directly at . 

Oh, and Sean and Bill were at the conference, too! They presented research on the application of GPS technology in assessing fine-scale movement of individuals. But we’ve already talked about that. (Sorry guys!)

Well done to all the members of the lab group who attended the conference ... looks like it was a great time!

At the Little Creatures Brewery

written by Dr Amanda Niehaus 

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