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:

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

Fans of sports underdogs have had an amazing run these past few months. In February, the New Orleans Saints won their first-ever Super Bowl, an upset victory over the invincible Colts. At the beginning of April, a little-known college from the Midwest made it to the NCAA basketball title game against the hated Blue Devils. (When the kids from Butler finally lost, the papers called them "triumphant in defeat.") And more recently, the Oklahoma City Thunder very nearly forced the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers to a seventh game in the first round of the NBA playoffs.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

Reason tells us this run will soon be over—underdogs are underdogs because they usually lose. I wasn't the only one whose heart sank when Butler's final shot rimmed out, and I won't suffer alone when Oklahoma City gets bumped from the playoffs. We all share in the occasional joy—and more frequent misery—of rooting for the improbable.

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Case in point: I cheered for Butler, ranked No. 5 in their region, as the long shot against Duke, ranked No. 1. But a few days before, when the Bulldogs had played another five seed, Michigan State, I didn't know which team was the underdog. The only solution was to root for the side that happened to be losing. Soon I found myself cheering for a Spartans team that couldn't get it together in the second half. They made a late run—closing to within one point in the final minute—but, alas, my disappointment was guaranteed. (If Michigan State had come back, I would have been pulling for Butler.) When the game ended, I fell into a sour mood.

"What did you expect?" my girlfriend asked, later that night. Rooting for the little guy is the American way, I said. It's Horatio Alger and Rocky Balboa and the Miracle on Ice. It's human nature.

That didn't quite answer her question. What's so natural about our love for the underdog? Why do sports fans choose to suffer?

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In 1992, an Indiana University professor named Edward Hirt conducted a famous study on the psychology of sports fandom. One hundred sixty-seven undergrads were invited into the lab and shown a broadcast of a Hoosiers basketball game. Afterward, they were asked to throw Velcro balls at a target, solve anagrams, and rate their chances of getting a date with members of the opposite sex.

Hirt showed that by varying the outcome of the basketball game, he could influence the results of the study. The students' test scores had little to do with the Hoosiers' performance on the court. But when they were asked how they felt about the tests, the basketball game made a huge difference. Big-time Indiana fans were more confident in their skills following a home-team victory—they expected to ace the ball toss and anagrams and declared themselves more sexually desirable. When the Hoosiers lost, the reverse happened: Students were dejected and lacking in self-esteem. Clearly there were real costs associated with sports fandom—a defeat on the court felt like a personal failure.

Researchers have found plenty of support for what seems like an obvious notion: In sports, we're drawn to a winner. Other factors—like where you live and who your friends are—can influence your choice of a favorite team. (Why else would you root for the Chicago Cubs?) But "team success is kind of like the icing on the cake," says Daniel Wann, a Murray State psychologist who studies the causes and consequences of being a fan.

Which brings us to that peculiar situation, so common in college basketball, where too much icing ruins the cake. In 1991, a pair of researchers at Bowling Green State University, Jimmy Frazier and Eldon Snyder, published a paper on what they called "the underdog concept in sport." Frazier and Snyder posed a simple hypothetical scenario to more than 100 college students: Two teams, A and B, were meeting in a best-of-seven playoff series for some unidentified sport, and Team A was "highly favored" to win. Which team would the students root for?

Eighty-one percent chose the underdog.

Then the students were asked to imagine that Team B had somehow managed to win the first three games of the series. Would the subjects root for the sweep or switch allegiance to the favorite? Half of those who first picked the underdog now said they'd support Team A. It was the same, cockamamie approach I'd taken to Butler and Michigan State: Root, root, root for the losing team—no matter what.

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If watching your team go down makes you feel like garbage, why are we drawn to teams that seem destined to lose? Frazier and Snyder tried to explain the effect with a bit of emotional economics. The sports spectator might be seen as a hedonistic animal, they argued, always out to maximize her excitement. So long as she's not beholden to any one team for sentimental reasons—she's a life-long Royals fan, perhaps—then she'll choose her rooting interest based on a rational calculation of costs and benefits.

Since a close game provides more entertainment than one that's lopsided, the self-interested fan might, for example, choose to support whichever team happens to be behind on the scoreboard. That's what I did in the Final Four: Instead of pulling for one side or the other, I hoped the game would go into triple overtime.

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