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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At first glance, the underdog effect appears to be widespread. In 2004, for example, a runty chestnut mare named Haru-urara became a national hero in Japan after losing a record 113 consecutive races. But few have tried to study the question in a systematic way.

Two research groups have conducted surveys in the Far East, finding that people in Singapore and South Korea have more or less the same love for the long shot as Americans. Nadav Goldschmied has more specific cross-cultural data: He presented subjects in Israel, China, and Japan with the same hypothetical scenario he'd posed to students in the United States. When they were forced to choose sides, 72 percent of the Japanese and 57 percent of the Chinese picked the team that was at a disadvantage. The Americans fell somewhere in between, at 67 percent. Meanwhile, the weakest effect turned up among the Israelis, who chose the underdog just 52 percent of the time.

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It's not clear why the underdog effect might be subdued in Israel. One possible explanation has to do with a sociological measure called power distance, in which Israelis happen to rank near the bottom of the world. That means they're exquisitely sensitive to social inequality, as compared with people in other countries.

For Goldschmied, though, the data showed an effect that was largely consistent across cultures. The underdog, he says, is a global phenomenon.

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For all its globetrotting, the underdog effect can be a fickle thing. Sure, I rooted for Butler, but I don't recall ever having cheered against the Giants or the Knicks on behalf  of some plucky long shot. I realize that upsets are exciting, but ... Let's go Mets!

Scott Allison, a professor at the University of Richmond, has a theory for why underdog fandom can seem a little flimsy. He calls it the "Wal-Mart effect." We root for our neighborhood store when a mega-discounter moves in down the street. But when it's time to buy a new television, we opt for the cheaper price. Mom and pop may win our heart, says Allison, but they're not getting our money.

To test this idea, Allison's lab presented a bunch of adults with another underdog hypothetical. This time a pair of companies were vying for a contract to test the drinking water in far-off Boise, Idaho. One was a large, well-established firm founded 30 years ago; the other was an eager startup. Which company would the subjects root for?

As expected, people were inclined toward the underdog. But the experimenters changed their minds by tweaking two key variables. If the subjects were told that the water in question might contain "cancer-causing mercury," the underdog effect disappeared. And if the site of the water testing was changed from "Boise, Idaho" to somewhere in their own community, the results flipped altogether. In that case, the subjects started rooting against the underdog.

Our affinity for the lesser team "is a mile wide and an inch deep," concluded the researchers. "We may feel morally good about rooting for the underdog, but our positive reaction is quite malleable."

Could that be right? If so, it doesn't really matter whether we're cheering for the Bulldogs out of some convoluted self-interest or because we think they've got hustle and heart. It doesn't matter whether we're egging them on for the sake of fairness or because they remind us of ourselves. Our attraction to the underdog may not matter very much at all.

Perhaps that's why the underdog seems most at home in the trivial world of team sports. With nothing much at stake, we're free to indulge an idle preference for an upset. "At an unconscious level, we know we don't take underdogs all that seriously," says Allison. "We love them, but it's a weak effect."

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