ILLUSTRATION BY TIM O’BRIEN
In a world full of ambiguity, we see what we want to see.
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.”
In watching and interpreting the game footage, the students were behaving similarly to children shown the famous duck-rabbit illusion, pictured above. When shown the illusion on Easter Sunday, more children see the rabbit, where on other Sundays they are more likely to see the duck.1 The image itself allows both interpretations, and switching from seeing one to the other takes some effort. When I showed duck-rabbit to my 5-year-old daughter, and asked her what she saw, she replied: “A duck.” When I asked her if she saw “anything else,” she edged closer, forehead wrinkled. “Maybe there’s another animal there?” I proffered, trying not to sound as if magnet school admission was on the line. Suddenly, a shimmer of awareness, and a smile. “A rabbit!”
I ought not to have felt bad. As an experiment by Allison Gopnik and colleagues showed, no child in a group of 3- to 5-year-old test subjects made the reversal (of a “vases-faces” illustration) on their own.2 When a group of older—but still “naïve”—children were tested, one-third made the reversal. Most of the rest were able to see both when the ambiguity was mentioned. Interestingly, the ones who saw both on their own were those who had done better on an exercise testing “theory of mind”—in essence the ability to monitor our own mental state in relation to the world (for example, showing children a box of Crayons that turn out to contain candles, and then asking them to predict what another child would think is in the box).
Attention can “be thought of as what you allow your eyes to look at.”
And if you do not discern duck-rabbit at first, or any other figure reversal, there is no immediate cause for concern: Any number of studies show adults, who as the authors note “presumably have complex representational abilities,” failing to make the switch. Nor is there any correct reading: While there is a slight rabbit tendency, there are plenty of duck people. Studies probing handedness as a cause have come up empty. My wife sees rabbit, I see duck. We are both lefties.
But while everyone, at some point, can be made to see duck-rabbit, there is one thing that no one can see: You cannot, no matter how hard you try, see both duck and rabbit at once…