Why do we love to root for the underdog?

The state of the universe.
April 30 2010 6:27 PM

The Underdog Effect

Why do we love a loser?

To hear Daniel Engber, Stefan Fatsis, Josh Levin, and Mike Pesca discuss why we love underdogs on Slate's sports podcast "Hang Up and Listen," click the arrow on the audio player below and fast-forward to the 32:20 mark:

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My strategy has an unfortunate side effect: The team you're rooting for never wins. On account of that, it may be smarter to gamble your emotions on the team that's most likely to reward you with a stirring victory—and that's least likely to crush your soul. For Frazier and Snyder, that means betting on the underdog: If they win, it's the greatest feeling in the world. And if they lose—well, you kind of knew that would happen all along. The same reasoning applies in reverse: If you're pulling for the favorite, then a loss cuts extra deep, while a victory merely delivers what you thought you deserved. "Thus a utilitarian model would indeed predict the underdog effect," the authors observe.

Let's give this a closer look. In effect, Frazier and Snyder are saying that the expected value of a bet on an underdog—its average payoff in raw, chest-bumping excitement—will always be higher than the expected value of a bet on the favorite. In other words, if you multiplied the odds of an underdog victory by the amount of pleasure it would produce, you'd end up with a higher number. Let's say you were rooting for the Giants against the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. The odds against the Giants were something like 4-to-1—meaning that bettors saw New York as being about one-fourth as likely to win the game as New England. Now imagine that the Giants' remarkable upset turned out to be four times more gratifying for Giants fans than a corresponding victory would have been for Patriots fans. (I remember that game. It did feel pretty darn good.) If that's the case, the expected payoffs would have been exactly the same. As a matter of emotional economics, it wouldn't matter which team you were rooting for.  

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The hedonistic sports fan would be drawn to the underdog only if these numbers were out of whack—if the amount of joy associated with an upset were disproportionate to the odds. Imagine, for example, that a Giants upset were one-fourth as likely as a Patriots victory but 10 times more gratifying. In that case, rooting for the long shot would be a no-brainer. (Even the folks in Boston might get on board.) But to assume that an upset would confer some dazzling, disproportionate joy begs the question altogether: What makes the underdog so wonderful to begin with?

Here's an alternative to Frazier and Snyder's utilitarian model. Let's assume the pleasure of an upset is exactly proportional to its odds: If Butler were half as likely to win the NCAA Championship, then a Bulldogs victory would feel twice as good. Now imagine that we all convinced ourselves, for one reason or another, that Butler had some hidden advantage that didn't show up in the Vegas betting line. Maybe it was the team's unbreakable heart or its selfless coach. If we gave our own inflated odds to the underdog but expected the reward would be undiminished, then betting on the long shot would make perfect sense. An emotional investment in Butler would look like a rational choice.

Researchers have found evidence for exactly this phenomenon—called the "favorite-long-shot bias"—at the horse track. One recent study that compiled stats from some 6 million American horse races showed a steep drop-off in the return on winning bets, as the odds against those bets increased. In other words, bettors were throwing money at the underdogs and underbidding on the favorites. That's not because we get some special pleasure from playing the ponies at 100-to-1, the authors argue. It's because we tend to overestimate the long shots' chances.

This bias might be explained by a tendency that behavioral economists have labeled the "availability heuristic": We make judgments about probability based on whatever data spring most easily to mind. The examples you remember are the ones that influence your beliefs. If you've just watched hours of footage about 9/11, for example, you might think you're more likely to die in a terrorist attack than in a car accident.

It's easy to see how the availability heuristic might lead us to favor the long shot. When you think about horse racing, which comes to mind first: Seabiscuit's underdog victory in the 1938 Pimlico Special or Cool Coal Man's unremarkable loss at the 2008 Kentucky Derby? If you're thinking about Seabiscuit when you step up to the betting window, you'll be more inclined toward horses with long odds. The same goes for any other sport. We'll reminisce about the fifth-seeded Butler Bulldogs for years to come. But what about Temple and Texas A&M—similarly ranked teams that didn't make it through the first weekend of the tournament? And consider all the other underdogs in our culture—from the Bible, from literature, and from every sports movie ever made. It's no accident that we remember the Titans.

So how biased are we? A few years ago, a graduate student named Nadav Goldschmied decided to find out. Goldschmied, who's now a professor of psychology at the University of San Diego, invited students to read a fake newspaper article about an upcoming rugby match. According to the article, odds makers had given one of the teams just a 30 percent chance of victory. When asked to make their own predictions, the students were more optimistic. Instead of pegging the underdog's odds at 30 percent, they guessed it was more like 41 percent. If the article specifically referred to the disadvantaged team as an "underdog," the effect was even stronger, with the students pegging the chance of victory at 44 percent.

Goldschmied repeated the experiment twice more, replacing the rugby teams with mayoral candidates and then a pair of businesses competing for a contract. In each case, the results were the same: The mere act of labeling one side as an underdog made the students think they were more likely to win.

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A purely economic theory of underdogs doesn't satisfy Goldschmied, though, nor does it appeal to his former mentor, Joseph Vandello of the University of South Florida. Their work has shown that our love for the little guy is as much a judgment of character as an emotional investment. In one study, they found that two-thirds of all voters in the 2004 presidential election described their preferred candidate as the "underdog." A follow-up four years later revealed that presidential candidates were deemed more likable after being characterized as an "underdog" by someone else. More recent data from Vandello's lab suggest that being cast as the underdog can make your actions seem more virtuous and your face appear more beautiful.

Why is an underdog so attractive? It may have something do with how hard he tries. Vandello showed subjects a video clip of a basketball game between two international teams said to be playing for a championship. One side was described as the 9-to-1 favorite, having won each of 15 previous playoff matches. After viewing the footage, which showed a close game, students were asked to rate the players according to their ability and effort.

As a rule, the underdogs were characterized as having less "talent" and "intelligence" than the favorites but more "hustle" and "heart." That was true even when subjects viewed the same video clip with the labels reversed. It didn't matter what was actually on the screen—which players jumped higher or who dived for the loose balls. The test subjects attributed more effort to whichever team had the underdog label.

So here's another theory of the underdog effect: We like it when people try as hard as they can. A mediocre team with a lot of "heart" is more appealing—and thus more deserving of our fandom—than a lineup of distractible superstars.

But there's one problem with this idea: In real-life competition, underdogs don't seem to have any more gumption than the odds-on favorites. In fact, recent data suggest that the underdogs might be dogging it.

For a study published in January, researchers Nathan Pettit and Robert Lount tested a bunch of undergraduates on a simple cognitive task—their ability to generate possible uses for a knife. Some students were told their scores would be compared with scores from a similar experiment conducted at a more prestigious university, while others believed they were going head-to-head with students at a worse school.

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