The Science Behind Our Love for Underdogs
The Science Behind Our Love for Underdogs
We all love a good underdog story! Whether its James ‘Buster’ Douglas KO’ing ‘Iron Mike’or an annual upset at the NCAA’s March Madness, for decades, we have been thrilled and captivated by watching personalities, athletes and teams rise up from nothing and take the win. Although it’s almost counterintuitive to be so supportive of someone or something that seems destined to lose, as it turns out, our affinity for underdogs is something of a psychological phenomenon.
What is an underdog?
An underdog could be classified as an individual or group of people who, from the start, are battling against the odds to succeed. Although we would
usually assume that underdogs have always been lower ranked, particularly when it comes to athletes and sports teams, however, that’s not always
the case. A study published in 2007 by the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin titled ‘The Appeal of the Underdog’ looked at just that and found some interesting discoveries.
Seventy-one participants were asked to ‘support’ one of two teams in an Olympic event; one of which had a higher ranking than the other. In all the situations, the participants said they would rather see the lower-ranked team prevail over the higher-ranked team, even if that team was the underdog in a previous situation. The researchers found that framing a team as an underdog automatically created a powerful response in participants to support and root for them, which is what happened when Brady’s Patriots were stunned by the Giants in 2008.
A Psychological Phenomenon Not Exclusive to Sports
Opinion polls from the 2012 U.S. general election showing typical fluctuations.
Our affinity for the perceived underdog also becomes apparent in situations outside the sporting arena. We all have strong opinions about celebrities and politicians, and typically we’ll root for those individuals whose circumstances haven’t given them a head start in their chosen careers. This phenomenon was made clear back in the 80s after a study was conducted during the U.S. presidential campaign.
The 1980 study, which is still published by Public Opinion Quarterly, looked at the impact of attitude polls on the polling behaviour of voters. One of the key discoveries made by the team behind the study was that typically, voters would vote for the candidate they believed was running behind. For example, the participants disproportionately gave Jimmy Carter their backing when they were told that Ronald Reagan was in the lead, but also did the same when told that Carter was in the lead. In situations like this, it could be wise to ask if the need to support the person with the long shot is clouding our judgment.
Things Change When There’s Something at Stake
Prof Scott Allison leads a keynote speech on the art and science of heroism.
It doesn’t take a genius to conclude that our affinity for underdogs in all walks of life has its roots in a universal need for the world to be fair. When we’ve labelled an individual, entity or team an underdog it’s easy to root for them under the perceived notion that they are more ‘deserving’ of the win than their more fortunate opponent. But are there any situations when a more primary need surpasses the desire to see the underdog win?
Scott Allison, a published author and Professor of Psychology at the University of Richmond, believes when there’s something substantial at stake, our support for the underdog will diminish. He led a 2008 study that investigated the support and then abandonment of the underdog. One section of the study asked participants to choose between supporting two theoretical companies, which were competing for a water-testing contract in Boise, Idaho. The participants were given limited information about the companies to start with, and as predicted, more than half of the group chose the smaller company to land the account. However, when participants were given an amended scenario, which told them the companies would be testing the water in their own hometowns, more than twice as many switched sides and gave their support to the more established company.
Many aspects of popular culture are influenced by the phenomenon of the underdog; have you ever seen a Disney movie that didn’t have the bottom horse come out on top? And as humans, we are wired to feel more empathy for people who have a clear, identified disadvantage. But as Allison established, when the triumph of an underdog comes at the expense of something that is a priority to us, unfortunately, they’ll just have to continue taking a back seat.