How Your Brain Decides Without You


Illustration by Tim O’Brien
In a world full of ambiguity, we see what we want to see.

By Tom Vanderbilt | NAUTILUS

Princeton’s Palmer Field, 1951. An autumn classic matching the unbeaten Tigers, with star tailback Dick Kazmaier—a gifted passer, runner, and punter who would capture a record number of votes to win the Heisman Trophy—against rival Dartmouth. Princeton prevailed over Big Green in the penalty-plagued game, but not without cost: Nearly a dozen players were injured, and Kazmaier himself sustained a broken nose and a concussion (yet still played a “token part”). It was a “rough game,” The New York Times described, somewhat mildly, “that led to some recrimination from both camps.” Each said the other played dirty.

The game not only made the sports pages, it made the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. Shortly after the game, the psychologists Albert Hastorf and Hadley Cantril interviewed students and showed them film of the game. They wanted to know things like: “Which team do you feel started the rough play?” Responses were so biased in favor of each team that the researchers came to a rather startling conclusion: “The data here indicate there is no such ‘thing’ as a ‘game’ existing ‘out there’ in its own right which people merely ‘observe.’ ” Everyone was seeing the game they wanted to see. But how were they doing this? They were, perhaps, an example of what Leon Festinger, the father of “cognitive dissonance,” meant when he observed “that people cognize and interpret information to fit what they already believe.”

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