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Group Perception
Hastorf and Cantril

Albert Hastorf and Hadley Cantril
They Saw a Game: A Case Study

Hastorf and Cantril - in a paper called They Saw a Game: A Case Study (1954) - analyzed what proved to be selective perception of a college football game contested between Dartmouth Indians and Princeton Tigers. The football game the students saw had actually been played in 1951 - Princeton won. It was a rough game, with many penalties, and it had aroused a furore of editorials in the campus newspapers and elsewhere.

The Princeton quarterback, an All-American, in this, his last game for his college, had had to leave the game in the second quarter with a broken nose and a mild concussion. In the third quarter the Dartmouth quarterback's leg was broken when he was tackled in the backfield.

One week after the game, Hastorf and Cantril had Dartmouth and Princeton psychology students fill out a questionnaire, and the authors analyzed the answers of those who had seen either the game or a movie of the game.

Question: "Which team do you feel started the rough play?"
Who started it?  ~  Survey Responses
Percent Dartmouth Students Percent Princeton Students
Princeton started it  2  0
Both started it 53 11
Dartmouth started it  36 86
Neither/no answer 9 3


The data in the above table demonstrates how the Dartmouth and Princeton students gave discrepant responses to the question "Who started it?"
Almost no one said that Princeton started the rough play; thirty-six per cent of the Dartmouth students and eighty-six per cent of the Princeton students said that Dartmouth started it; and fifty-three per cent of the Dartmouth students and eleven per cent of the Princeton students said that both started it.


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Question: "Do you believe the game was clean and fairly played or that it was unnecessarily rough and dirty?"
Clean and Fair?  ~  Survey Responses
Percent Dartmouth Students Percent Princeton Students
Clean & Fair 13  0
Rough & Fair 39 3
Rough & Dirty 42 93
don't know 6 4


The data in the above table again demonstrates how the Dartmouth and Princeton students gave differing responses, this time to the question of "Whether or not the game was clean and fair?"
None of the Princeton said the game was clean and fair, in contrast to thirteen per cent of the Dartmouth students who did.
Ninety-three per cent of the Princeton students actually saw the game as having been "Rough & Dirty", eighty-one per cent of the Dartmouth students saw the game as having been "Rough" but almost half of these saw that "Roughness" as having been "Fair".

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When shown a film of the game later, the Princeton students "saw" the Dartmouth team make over twice as many rule infractions as were seen by Dartmouth students. Hastorf and Cantril interpreted these results overall as indicating that, when encountering a mix of occurrences as complex as a football game, we experience primarily those events that fulfill a familiar pattern and have personal significance.

For these students, the selective perception and recall of what might seem to be "the same event" involved a very active construction of differing realities. Our membership of any group often provides a frame and a filter through which we view social events. This Dartmouth v Princeton game had a particular meaning for students from each school, and a quite different meaning to people who felt no allegiance to either team. And even among those on the same side, the game meant different things to the team members and their fans. This classic case study demonstrates the crucial role of values in shaping perception.

Albert Hastorf and Hadley Cantril - They Saw a Game: A Case Study [Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 1954] interpreted their experiment as evidence that "out of all the occurrences going on in the environment, a person selects those that have some significance for him from his own egocentric position in the total matrix", that the game "actually was many different games" and that each version of the events that transpired was just as "real" to a particular person as other versions were to other people. In this study, the subjects' perceptions were swayed by their motives. It shows how people sometimes see what they want to see.

Hastorf and Cantril conclude :: "In brief, the data here indicate that there is no such 'thing' as a 'game' existing 'out there' in its own right which people merely 'observe.' The game 'exists' for a person and is experienced by him only insofar as certain happenings have significances in terms of his purpose."

Social influence is most profound when it is least evident - when it shapes our most fundamental assumptions and beliefs about the world without our realizing it. The reactions of the Princeton and Dartmouth fans were certainly shaped and biased by their school allegiances, but were the fans aware of that influence? Probably not. We would not expect anyone to be particularly aware of thinking, "I'd better interpret that tackle as vicious because my friends will reject me if I don't." Social influences have surrounded us since infancy, and it is therefore no surprise that we usually are unaware of their impact. Does the fish know it swims in water?

Away from the football field American Ivy League students of that era may perhaps be held to have largely shared a common cultural background in terms of the "American" way of life. We may wonder about the difficulties that States and Historic Communities experience in maintaining harmonious relations. What role might selective perception be said to have in these serious matters? Could one state or community act "quite reasonably" in terms of its own shared view of reality and yet seem, to other states or communities, to act "quite unreasonably"?

The impetus we need to become aware of the impact of such social influence may perhaps be held to take the form of a shift in perspective. If we sometimes try to put ourselves into someone else's shoes we can perhaps see situations more comprehensively and more justly.

Human Psychology

Diagram suggesting that Human Nature demonstrates a Spiritual, Materialistic and Tribal or Group-related 'Tripartism'


It is widely known that Plato, pupil of and close friend to Socrates, accepted that Human Beings have a " Tripartite Soul " where individual Human Psychology is composed of three aspects - Wisdom-Rationality, Spirited-Will and Appetite-Desire.

What is less widely appreciated is that such major World Faiths as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism see "Spirituality" as being relative to "Desire" and to "Wrath".


Explore Human Nature on our insightful
Human Nature - Tripartite Soul page