A 1951 Football game and the Illusion of Impartiality

For more than 100 years, major league philosophers like Descartes and Voltaire built careers off the idea that human minds perceived reality through a rational filter. It’s not a bad idea: we’d all like to think that we’re rational observers of the world, especially if the observation in question is a sports game; How can you not be rational if you’re sizing up a game based upon pre-agreed upon rules with an official score keeper?About sixty years ago, there was a football game that was the catalyst for extensive research and the introduction of a theory that is now the standard for understanding human perception. Journalist David McRaney, a describes the infamous game:

In 1951, Dartmouth and Princeton squared off in the last game of the season for both schools. Princeton had won every game up to that point. Its star player, Dick Kazmaier, had been featured on the cover of Time that same year and would go on to become the last Ivy League player to receive the Heisman Trophy. It was a big game for both teams, which is why Princeton went bonkers in the second quarter, after a Dartmouth player broke Kazmaier’s nose. In the next quarter, a Princeton player snapped a Dartmouth player’s leg. The whole event was brutal, and both sides racked up plenty of penalties before Princeton finally won by a final score of 13–0.

Psychologists Albert Hastorf at Dartmouth and Hadley Cantril at Princeton noticed soon after the game the college newspapers of each school began printing stories that seemed to suggest two versions of the truth were in open competition to become the official version of reality. A year later, the two published a study that is now considered by many to be the best starting point for talking about cognitive bias and selective perception.

Like good scientists, Hastorf and Cantril took advantage of the phenomena presented to them and recruited a group of Dartmouth and Princeton students and coordinated viewings of the filmed football game and administered questionnaires. Even after watching the game again, test subjects held firm to their beliefs. Dartmouth students still justified their team’s behavior and felt Princeton players were the offenders. Princeton students saw their team as the victims of Dartmouth’s unsportsmanlike behavior. Same game, controlled setting, but totally different experiences.

Arguably it was a college game, and we’d like to think that in practice when push comes to shove we can stay objective. Supreme Court Justice Scalia (folks we’d like to believe as super objective thinkers) might’ve agreed: In January 2004 he was questioned about his ability to remain impartial after going on a personal hunting trip with Vice President Dick Cheney. Tricky timing given the Supreme Court was scheduled to hear a case involving the VP  three weeks earlier. In his animated style, Justice Scalia retorted: “I do not believe my impartiality can reasonably be questioned. If it is reasonable to think that a Supreme Court Justice can be bought so cheap, the Nation is in deeper trouble than I had imagined. For Pete’s sake, if you can’t trust your Supreme Court justice more than that, get a life.”

He may have a point, but consider the susceptibility of our imperfections with a more mundane example below:


The X’s are actually the same color. In the same way that games aren’t simply scores and records, colors aren’t just wavelengths of light. “My usual quick answer to that is I can take any wavelength and make it appear almost any color,” says Mark Fairchild, who studies color and vision science at the Rochester Institute of Technology. “The agreed-upon technical definition of color,” says Fairchild, “is that it’s a visual perception.”

Even with the best intentions to be impartial, each of us is subject to context and personal experience to our perception of individual events. While it’s difficult to control our biases, perhaps the key is to grow aware of our tendencies and to be cognizant of what truly influences our perspective.

Granted, this doesn’t make resolving “he said/she said” situations any easier nor does it give eyesight to the blind ref who obviously didn’t see that foul, but at the end of the day, thinking rationally or not, we’d like to think that you can’t go wrong cheering for the home team.