Friday, June 28, 2024

No Such "Thing" as a "Game"

The 1951 Dartmouth-Princeton football game was rough from the start. But its infamy didn't begin to cement until the second quarter, when the star quarterback of Princeton's undefeated team suffered a broken nose and a concussion. Later, a Dartmouth player's leg was broken. Players and spectators began accusing the other side of playing dirty well before the game had ended. Once the battle on the football field was over, it resumed in the media: The Dartmouth, the Daily Princetonian, even the New Yorker. No one could agree what had happened that day—but they had all seen the same game, hadn't they?

Psychology professors Albert Hastorf and Hadley Cantril, of Dartmouth and Princeton respectively, decided to test that very question. In what would become a classic study in social psychology, they showed a group of Dartmouth students and a separate group of Princeton students the same film of the game. Students were asked simply to note any infractions they observed. On average, Dartmouth students attributed approximately four infractions to each team. Princeton students agreed that their own team had committed about four infractions, but they saw Dartmouth make nearly ten. The study even mentions a Dartmouth alumnus who viewed a copy of the film and insisted parts must have been cut out, as he literally "couldn’t see the infractions he had heard publicized." From this, Hastorf and Cantril concluded that "there is no such 'thing' as a 'game' existing 'out there' in its own right which people merely 'observe.'" In other words, no, not everyone had seen the same game.

This was all very nice for Hastorf, Cantril, and the future of psychology, but not everyone enjoyed the aftermath of the game so much. Poor President Dickey, who was busy trying to recover from strep throat, received a deluge of angry, disappointed, supportive, and occasionally bewildered letters from alumni of Dartmouth and Princeton alike. Hiding in one of the two folders full of such letters, we have a familiar telegram from Norris E. Williamson '26:

Preview of Princeton movies indicates considerable cutting of important part please wire explanation and possible air mail missing part before showing scheduled for January 25 we have splicing equipment.

This is the very telegram Hastorf and Cantril quote in their study as "one of the most interesting examples" of the phenomenon they were studying! Williamson was planning to show the film to his fellow Denver alumni, at least one of whom was so distraught over the news of the game that he could not sleep at night. Executive Officer Edward Chamberlain was eager to oblige his friend "Norrie." At the bottom of the telegram is a scribbled reply to Williamson, which Chamberlain would later convey over the phone:

Print whole when sent from here to you via a Printing group—what parts do you think were cut. Can’t understand it. Eddie.

It appears Chamberlain was able to assure Williamson that the tape he had been sent was intact. Later, Williamson would write back to inform Chamberlain that "a good many experts" had viewed the film, and "they all agreed that it was a good game and not as reported in the papers." But whose perspective can we really trust?

To read more impassioned letters about this historic football game, visit Rauner Library and ask for DP-12, box 7114.

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