“They Saw a Game”

“They Saw a Game”

By David S. Sobel, MD | April 13, 2023

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I must confess: I have gone a bit crazy over watching ‘March Madness’—the annual NCAA college basketball tournament in the United States. Not that I have watched every game as the teams compete through the brackets whimsically named “Sweet Sixteen,” “Elite Eight,” “Final Four,” and so on. Apparently, I am not alone. Employers find their workers missing in action as a third of the workforce admit to watching March Madness during the workday. Employers report an 11-percent increase in sick days or tardiness during March Madness. 

While watching one game I went kind of berserk when a foul was not called against one of my favorite players and teams. Clearly, the refs made a mistake. Can’t they see what’s going on right in front of them? Are they blind? Even after viewing the replay, I was convinced a foul was committed. The refs blew it!

All this got me thinking about a classic 1954 study performed by psychologists Albert Hastorf and Hadley Cantril following a Princeton-Dartmouth college football match. Okay, it’s not basketball but the findings are relevant for all sports and, in fact, for many domains of life including politics as we will see. Within a few minutes of kickoff, it became apparent that the game was going to be a rough one. In the second quarter, Princeton’s star player left the game with a broken nose. In the third quarter, a Dartmouth player was taken off the field with a broken leg. Tempers flared both during and after the game. 

For weeks after the match accusations were traded between players, coaches, and alumni of the two schools. Writeups of the game in the schools’ newspapers were diametrically opposed. There was disagreement between sides as to what had actually happened during the match. This presented a great opportunity for a “real life” case study by psychologists Hastorf and Cantril. 

The researchers interviewed the two groups of fans and recorded their opinions of the game on a questionnaire. The Princeton fans said that Dartmouth had been unduly violent and aggressive toward their quarterback. The Dartmouth fans reported that the game was rough but fair. What a football game looks like depends on whether you are from Dartmouth, or not—even when you don’t see the match live but watch a replay of the game later. Hastorf and Cantril discovered a few things.

  • Princeton students watching a replay of the game saw the opposing Dartmouth team make over twice as many infractions as their own team made.
  • Princeton students saw the Dartmouth team make over twice as many infractions as were seen by the Dartmouth students who also watched the game replay.
  • When Princeton students judged these infractions as “flagrant” or “mild,” the ratio was about two “flagrant” to one “mild” for the Dartmouth team. For their own team, Princeton students judged the infractions as one “flagrant” to three “mild.”
  • When Dartmouth students watched the replay, they saw both teams make about the same number of infractions.
  • Dartmouth fans saw their own team make only half the number of infractions the Princeton students saw them make.
  • The Dartmouth supporters’ ratio of “flagrant” to “mild” infractons attributed to Princeton was about one to one. When they judged their own infractions, it was one “flagrant” to two “mild.” 

The authors of the study conclude:

“It seems clear 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… The ‘same’ sensory impingements emanating from the football field, transmitted through the visual mechanism to the brain, also obviously gave rise to different experiences in different people. The significances assumed by different happenings for different people depend in large part on the purposes people bring to the occasion and the assumptions they have of the purposes and probable behavior of other people involved.”


Though we assume that we perceive reality directly, this is an illusion; perhaps better termed “a virtual reality” or “a personal construction” of reality. Our sensory systems filter and limit the information transmitted to the brain. From this greatly reduced flow of information, we construct our personal version of “reality.” 

This construction is fundamentally shaped by our biases, assumptions, and personal experiences. In the case of a football game your perception would be influenced by many factors including what school you went to, what town you live(d) in, which teams your parents supported, or even, whether you like the mascot of the team. (As I write this, I am watching a Final Four college basketball game. When I asked my wife who she was hoping would win, she replied, “I guess Florida Atlantic. I don’t know much about the team, but I really like their mascot… an owl!” Me? I prefer the Aztec Warriors of San Diego State University.) So, we are really watching or experiencing different “games.”   

Of course, our construction of a personal reality plays out in all domains, not just sports. Psychologist Robert Ornstein explores the fundamental way our mind shapes reality in his book The Psychology of Consciousness. In one example, he describes a 1985 Stanford University study of the perceptions of two groups of politically juxtaposed students:

“Pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli students were shown the same news filmstrips pertaining to the massacre of Palestinian refugees by Christian Lebanese militia fighters in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War. Although they were identical news clips both sides found that the film was slanted in favor of the other side. Pro-Israeli students reported seeing more anti-Israel references and fewer favorable references to Israel in the news report, and pro-Palestinian students reported seeing more anti-Palestinian references and fewer favorable references to Palestine. Both sides said a neutral observer would have a more negative view of their side from viewing the clips, and that the media excused the other side where it blamed their side. Subjects differed along partisan lines on simple, objective criteria such as the number of references to a given subject.”

‘Why can’t other people see the world like I see it?’ we might ask. Whether it be in the context of a family disagreement, a partisan political squabble, or a piece of news reporting on a divisive issue, each of us selects certain features and screens out other details due to individual and cultural biases.  

Of course, there are constraints on our construction of reality. There are facts and rules which limit us in how far we can take our own interpretation. No matter which sports team or political candidate you support, there is a final score, or vote count. Even if you imagine you can walk through walls, you might want to test it before fully committing to that illusion. 

As Ornstein vividly describes, each of us lives in a different world. 

“Each person is a unique individual, with a certain family history, training, profession, interests. These background factors deeply influence the differences in our personal consciousnesses. Any given event is infinitely rich in itself; but the richness will be perceived variously, depending on the perceiver. Consider a scene in a park on a Sunday afternoon. An artist walking through may note the quality of the light, the colors of the leaves on the trees, the geometric forms of the landscape. A psychologist might notice the people present, their mannerisms, interactions, speech patterns. A physician, looking at the same people, might notice not their interactions, but their body structures and their health. A botanist might ignore the people, to focus on the flowers. One woman may remember words, another gestures. One man may be fascinated by a particular smell in the air, while another may be too immersed in his own thoughts and fantasies to register anything about the external environment.”

Bridging our different worlds requires a Step 1: that we understand and accept that each of us selectively constructs our reality. And yes, that can be a bit humbling. But it prepares us for Step 2, in which we attempt to learn about, and from, the differences in others’ life experiences. Not easy, but that is the way the ball bounces whether an Owl or an Aztec.


David S. Sobel, MD, is an Adjunct Lecturer in the Department of Medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine. He is coauthor of ten books including three with Robert Ornstein, entitled The Healing BrainHealthy Pleasures, and The Mind & Body Health Handbook.