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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The subjects who believed they were up against the stronger competition ended up performing worse on the test. Playing the role of the underdog appeared to sap their motivation. Likewise, the group that was ostensibly paired with a lower-ranked school seemed to try harder.

Another paper, by economist Jennifer Brown, used the results of hundreds of PGA golf tournaments to arrive at a similar conclusion. She examined how the performance of professional golfers changed when they were playing against Tiger Woods. Controlling for the course, the weather, and other factors, Brown found that Tiger's opponents shot almost a full stroke worse, on average, whenever he was in the tournament. (The quality of Tiger's game also made a difference: When he was on a roll, the competition suffered all the more.) Brown calls this an "adverse superstar effect": In the face of a superior opponent, pro golfers have less incentive to compete.  

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Whether or not the underdogs are really trying harder, what's important is how they're perceived. And for some reason, we tend to assign positive attributes to whichever team or players are at a disadvantage. The utter ubiquity of this effect is part of what makes it so remarkable. Vandello has found that between two-thirds and three-quarters of us are prone to its influence, regardless of gender, political orientation, or personality type. And it applies in areas as diverse as sports, international relations, product branding, and the dating market. One group has even documented a preference for underdog landscape painters.  

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Even Frazier and Snyder, purveyors of the emotional economics model, wondered whether their findings might reflect some more noble human drive. What if it's not a cost-benefit curve that attracts us to the underdog? Maybe he appeals instead to something deeper—a primal sense of fairness. It's the ancient emotion aroused by the story of David and Goliath: We just want David to have a shot.

The desire for equity (or the aversion to inequity, as it's more often formulated) could explain our strange attachment to the losing team. Economists have shown that people are willing to sacrifice their own interests for the sake of restoring balance. A well-known example comes from the laboratory game "Ultimatum." Two players are presented with a pool of money, and the first proposes a way to split it—say, 60-40. The second player then decides whether to accept the offer. If she turns it down, neither one gets any money. It seems like no one should ever reject the offer, since that means forgoing something for nothing. But in practice, the idea of an uneven reward drives people crazy. We'd rather give up our share altogether.

The same idea might apply to sports fans. A lopsided championship game makes us uncomfortable; it seems unfair. The underdog effect, then, serves as ballast for crooked odds. If we're at the stadium, we might use our fandom to influence the game directly—by screaming over the snap count or waving thundersticks at a free-throw shooter. And when we're watching at home, our efforts to help the underdog might take the form of magical thinking: If I just cross my fingers  

Our dislike for inequity in sports could explain why we appreciate teams that appear to try harder on the court. Natural talent is unfair: You either have it or you don't. But a game that's decided on effort alone gives everyone an equal shot. The Bulldogs may not be as gifted as the Blue Devils, or as smart or well-coached. So we're hoping a little elbow grease can even things out.

Vandello and Goldschmied set up an experiment to test this hypothesis. They started 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 odds-on (7-to-3) favorite. Then they made things more complicated. The students were to imagine that the players on Team A had lower salaries than the ones on Team B—their payrolls were $35 million and $100 million, respectively. Which team would the students root for—the small-market team that was a heavy favorite? Or the big-market team that was expected to lose?

Two-thirds supported the favorite, Team A. When two kinds of underdogs went head-to-head, the students came out in favor of the one with better odds but less money. For the authors, this was evidence that inequity aversion drives the underdog effect, "above and beyond" emotional self interest.

Indeed, Vandello suspects that a sense of fairness may be an evolved trait that isn't specific to humans. He cites a Nature study from 2003, showing that brown capuchin monkeys reject unequal rewards for the same trained behavior: When one monkey was given a piece of cucumber and another received a delicious grape, the first became uncooperative. In 2008, similar findings were reported with canine subjects: One dog might refuse to offer her paw if deprived of the sausage treat offered to another. Like the people who play the Ultimatum game, these animals were ready to give up their share if they didn't get a fair shake.

Not everyone believes the results of these animal inequity studies. But if Vandello's right, chimps, orangutans, and capuchins would share our love for the long shot. Better still: Dogs themselves might root for the 'dogs.

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The Hoosiers study showed that we're more confident when our team succeeds—that victory gives us hope. Maybe that's what we like about the long shot: I'm more like Butler than Duke; if they can win, so can I.

The same idea may explain why Americans in particular love an underdog. When you're living in an unequal society, the long shot offers something precious—the belief that anyone can overcome his misfortune. (Here's the Marxist critique of college basketball: It blunts the anger of the working class.) The average American roots for the underdog in sports because he's an underdog in life.

So how does the rest of the world respond to a sports mismatch? Vandello says monkeys and chimps might share our proclivity for long odds. What about the French and the Chinese?