The generalized matching law in elite sport competition: Football play calling as operant choice

Derek D. Reed, Thomas S. Critchfield, Brian K. Martens

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

48 Scopus citations


A mathematical model of operant choice, the generalized matching law was used to analyze playcalling data from the 2004 National Football League season. In all analyses, the relative ratio of passing to rushing plays was examined as a function of the relative ratio of reinforcement, defined as yards gained, from passing versus rushing. Different analyses focused on season-aggregate data for the league as a whole, game-by-game data for the league as a whole, and game-by-game data for individual teams, In all analyses except those for a few individual teams, the generalized matching law accounted for a majority of variance in play calling. The typical play-calling pattern reflected undermatching (suggesting imperfect sensitivity of play calling to yardagegained reinforcers) and a bias for calling rushing plays. Bias was found to be a function of both the relative risk of turnovers and the relative variability in yards gained associated with passing versus rushing plays. The external validity of the matching analyses was supported by significant correlations between parameters of the generalized matching law and team success on offense and season winning percentage. These results illustrate the broad applicability of the generalized matching law to problems outside of the laboratory.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)281-297
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Applied Behavior Analysis
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2006


  • Choice
  • Football
  • Generalized matching law
  • Play calling
  • Sport

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Philosophy
  • Applied Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science


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