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Why we love underdogs

By Kayvon Ghoreshi
On March 27, 2014

Last week I sat in joy as I watched Mercer knock off Duke in the first round of the NCAA tournament. It was one of multiple upsets that have taken place thus far in the tournament and one of the defining factors of March Madness: underdogs. Every year there is a "Cinderella" team that everyone counts out either because of seeding or a weak conference. A few years ago it was Butler. This year you have long shots like Stanford and Dayton making the Sweet Sixteen and gaining some new fans along the way. We as a society seem to love underdogs. However, why exactly do we have this sort of favoritism?

A common answer, particularly in sports, is that we'd rather watch a close game than a blowout. As such, we may root for the underdog simply to keep things entertaining. This mindset was likely prevalent during this year's Super Bowl as viewers with a neutral interest probably wanted to see Peyton Manning and Denver stage a comeback just to keep the game entertaining. Some research has also shown that people may be hedging their bets when rooting for an underdog. When you're neutral towards both teams, the underdog winning is more exciting than if the favorite wins because it is unexpected. Likewise, rooting for an underdog and watching them lose is less depressing than rooting for the favorite and watching them lose because that result is expected for the underdog. Thus, psychologists have theorized that this emotional risk and reward is the underlying reason for underdog favoritism.
While that may be applicable to sports, it doesn't explain our bias towards underdogs in other walks of life. In one study, participants were told about scenarios of two businesses or two political candidates in which one was clearly the favorite. Yet, when asked who they supported and who they thought would succeed, the majority still favored the underdog. In fact, simply describing an entity or individual as an "underdog" caused people to have greater optimism than if they were described as simply being "disadvantaged." However, people don't have the same emotional desire for a close election or business competition as they do a close basketball game.
What more research has found is that rooting for the underdog has less to do with our own desires for excitement and more to do with our perception of inequality and a desire for fairness. Researchers Joseph Vandello and Nadav Goldschmied showed this by presenting their subjects with the classic underdog scenario: Two teams, A and B, are about to play an important match, for which Team A was the 7-to-3 favorite. The students were also told that the players on Team A had a payroll of $35 million while Team B had $100 million. Two-thirds supported the favorite, Team A, showing that the cause of the favoritism was tied more to an aversion to inequity and our perception of an underdog. This behavior is similarly found in a popular experiment known as "Ultimatum." Two players are presented with a pool of money, and the first proposes a way to split it. The second player then decides whether or not to accept the offer. If he or she rejects it, no one gets any money. Rationale says that even if the offer is 99-1 you should still accept because $1 is better than nothing. But in practice, the idea of such an unbalanced reward is incredibly adverse to people, leading to any offer below 20 generally getting rejected.
By definition, it is assumed that the underdog is at a disadvantage. They are perceived to lack natural talent, financial resources, or something else that the favorite has which creates this inequality in the eyes of the viewer. As such, any success is assumed to be due to hard work and determination, which makes up for this supposed deficit, even though that may not be the case. However, we generally commend hard work and want it to be rewarded.
This is at the heart of why we like the NCAA Cinderella teams, the rags to riches stories, or our movie heroes that overcome impossible odds. At many points in our own lives we will view ourselves at a disadvantage, whether it is in athletics, applying for a job or in almost any other measure of success. And it's reassuring to know that an underdog can win.


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