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Selective Perception and Attention at the World Cup

Why we saw the same game but may see and remember it differently

With so much of the world glued to World Cup soccer action for the next few weeks, often conversations turn to “the game." Although we are all watching the same games, people’s perceptions, reflections, and overall assessment of any given game can be starkly different, depending on which team they support. Why is this? Despite remembering objectively true information (e.g., the score or outcome of the game), people will report many differences in what they actually saw when watching the game, suggesting that perhaps we all weren’t watching the same game, or in fact, we interpret events differently depending upon our allegiances.

The selective perception of certain events in a sporting context was illustrated beautifully in a classic study by Hastorf and Cantril entitled "They Saw a Game: A Case Study.” As they report it:

On November 23, 1951, the Dartmouth football team played Princeton at Princeton's Palmer Stadium. Dartmouth and Princeton represented a great rivalry, and it was the last game of the season. Princeton was undefeated, and its star player, Dick Kazmaier, was All-American and had just been featured on the cover of Time magazine.

The game was rough, marred by fights, penalties, and several injured players. In the second quarter, Princeton's star had to leave 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. Princeton won the game, and in terms of penalties, Dartmouth was penalized 70 yards, and Princeton 25 (not counting several plays in which both sides were penalized). Students at each school blamed the opposing team in school newspapers and in various interviews.

This polarized and detailed student opinion motivated Hastorf and Cantril (for the record, social psychologists at Dartmouth and Princeton, respectively) to carry out an illuminating experiment, which illustrated that these polarized perceptions can influence what people actually claim to have seen when watching a game. They had students from each school watch a film of the game and judge, the number of infractions committed by each team during the game.

On average, the Dartmouth student participants counted 4.3 infractions committed by their own team and 4.4 by the opponents, reflecting the general Dartmouth belief that the game had been rough but fair (and contrary to accusations that the Princeton star was intentionally targeted and injured). On the other hand, the Princeton students judged the Dartmouth team to have committed an average of 9.8 infractions, and their own team only 4.2, confirming their general claim that the Dartmouth team had resorted to dirty tactics to try to stay even with Princeton. In essence, everyone saw the same game on film, but each group noticed more or less penalties based on their team allegiance.

Despite all of these students watching the same game, they judged events to be very different, thanks largely to a subjective assessment of penalties—something that can play a key role in World Cup soccer. In many cases, a judgment call must be made by a referee, and this call will be questioned by both sides, especially if it results in a red card, penalty shot or other event that can strongly influence the outcome of a game. On the other hand, if a player commits an especially egregious act (such as biting another player, in the case of star Luis Suarez in the Uruguay vs. Italy game), people might agree about what had happened (after all, it was captured on camera), but disagree about the motivation or context, and this can influence how suspensions are then decided.

After the win for Uruguay, Suarez didn't confirm or deny the bite, but said he was upset that Chiellini—one of the best defenders in the world and also known for his somewhat physical play—had hit him in the eye during the game. "These are things that happen on the pitch, we were both in the area, he thrust his shoulder into me," Suarez said in Spanish. "These things happen on the pitch, and we don't have to give them so much (importance)." In response, Chiellini said, "Not sending off Suarez (was) ridiculous. It was absolutely clear. There's even a mark."

The “we don't have to give them so much (importance)” seems critical here, as Italian fans found this event of extreme importance, given that Uruguay scored the winning goal about a minute later, and the loss eliminated Italy from the World Cup. In fact, there is even some dispute about what we actually saw, in terms of the severity and location of the bite, as some even claim it may be a photoshop hoax.

It will be interesting to see how we remember Luis Suarez’s bite (and the events that led up to the incident) and whether people think of or remember his suspension as either warranted or severe enough, but there might be differing reports depending on who you talk to. Based on the study by Hastorf and Cantril, perhaps it won’t be a surprise that Italian fans might remember the bite, the events surrounding the biting incident, and the game in general, somewhat differently than those from Uruguay.

The bottom line is that people see events in a selective manner, and will later remember (and misremember) events and details such that they fit with a certain personal perspective. The World Cup may represent a case study of selective attention regarding what we want to see. This selective perception can influence what we later remember about the game, regardless of who won.

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