Selective Perception, a Study by Hastorf and Cantril

Hastorf and Cantril conducted a study that was surprising both in its simplicity and conclusions. It supported the idea of selective perception. This is a phenomenon in which our beliefs and desires distort reality.
Selective Perception, a Study by Hastorf and Cantril

Last update: 28 July, 2021

Hastorf and Cantril’s study gives an interesting example of what selective perception is. Furthermore, how this phenomenon manifests itself in everyday situations. Selective perception refers to the distorted way in which you perceive what happens in accordance with your own beliefs. In other words, you often only see what you want to see.

Albert H. Hastorf and Hadley Cantril conducted the study. It was published in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology in 1954. Although they didn’t establish the theory of selective perception, their research did corroborate it.

Selective perception is a cognitive bias. It occurs when you only give credence to events or words that conform to your own desires or beliefs. In fact, you ignore anything that contradicts them. Let’s see how Hastorf and Cantril’s case study supports this phenomenon.

“Experience teaches that in visual perception there is a discrepancy between physical fact and psychic effect.

-Josef Albers-

A woman with a man in the background.

The Hastorf and Cantril case study

The study involved a football match that took place in 1951. The game was between two iconic United States clubs, the Dartmouth Indians and the Princeton Tigers. These two teams were great rivals. For this reason, it was an extremely important game for the fans.

The highlight of the game occurred when Princeton’s most important player had to leave the game due to a broken nose. In addition, one of Dartmouth’s most important players had to leave the field due to a fractured leg.

These injuries were caused by player violence. Hastorf and Cantril conducted their study in order to ascertain the way the violence was perceived by the fans of both teams. They asked a group of psychology students from Princeton and Dartmouth who’d either seen the game or a recording of it to complete a questionnaire.

The questionnaire results

As the researchers expected, the two sets of results were very different. For example, one of the questions concerned which of the two teams were first to play dirty. 86 percent of Princeton students said it was the Dartmouth players. 53 percent of the Dartmouth students said that both teams were to blame.

However, only 42 percent of Dartmouth students considered the game had been rough and dirty. On the other hand, 93 percent of Princeton students said it had been. Regarding the number of fouls, the Princeton students estimated that Dartmouth had violated the rules twice as often as Princeton. The Dartmouth students made a similar, though not as radical, assessment.

A man looking worried.

Selective perception

Hastorf and Cantril’s study tended to prove that everyone sees what they want to see, in accordance with their desires and interests. In this case, Princeton students paid increased attention to the stimuli that suggested their team had played in a fairer and more honest way. However, they ignored the fact that Princeton had also played a rough game.

Dartmouth students tried to downplay their team’s actions and place more emphasis on Princeton’s excesses. In fact, when some students saw that the evidence didn’t support their accounts, they went so far as to say the video was faked and didn’t correspond to what had really happened.

Selective perception is present in all of our daily lives without us even noticing. It tends to take place when there are two people, groups, sides, or teams in conflict. Each individual finds it difficult to objectively view the ideas and actions of the opposing side. Consequently, this means unfair assessments are often made. However, when there’s increased empathy, the bias reduces.

It might interest you...
Selective Perception: How it Affects Our View of the World
Exploring your mindRead it in Exploring your mind
Selective Perception: How it Affects Our View of the World

We often choose to see or understand what we want to. This is known as selective perception. Find out how this can affect your way of seeing life.



  • Payá Santos, C. A., & Delgado Morán, J. J. (2017). Incertidumbres del análisis dimensional de la inteligencia. URVIO Revista Latinoamericana de Estudios de Seguridad, (21), 225-239.