The Psychology Behind Our Love Of Underdogs

Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
Whether you're a fan of Bernie Sanders, The Mets, or even the Michelle of your friend group, you are almost certainly rooting for the underdog in some realm of your life. But why do we torture ourselves by cheering on someone (or something) that, logically, seems destined to lose? It turns out this affinity for the underdog is totally common — and there are some pretty logical explanations.

First off, let there be no doubt about how much we love rooting for the little guy: Given no other context, more than 80% of participants in a 1991 study said they would rather root for an underdog than a team that was heavily favored to win.

More recently, in a 2007 study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers asked 71 participants to imagine that two teams — one ranked higher than the other — were going to compete in an Olympic swimming event. In all pairings, the participants said they would prefer to see the lower-ranked team prevail over the higher-ranked one, even if that higher-ranked team had been the underdog in a previous scenario. Merely framing a team as an underdog makes us more likely to root for it.

But the phenomenon isn't just confined to sports. In another study (from the same researchers as the Olympic swimming study) that took place ahead of the 2008 election, participants had to read a speech from either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton in which each claimed to be an underdog. Another group of participants read a statement (like a news article) that referred to one candidate as a front-runner ahead of the other.

Here, participants were more likely to see an underdog candidate as being warmer and slightly more competent than when that person was portrayed as a front-runner. Researchers also found that, while we love it when our favored candidates are described as underdogs, we're not so keen on their opponents being seen that way. Another study even showed that we perceive underdogs as being more attractive.

The fact that we love underdogs isn't a secret. But isn't it a little weird to root for people or teams that seem primed to lose, given the fact that we, generally, prefer to win? In one classic study, participants who were shown a game in which the team they were rooting for won reported having higher self-esteem and more generously predicted their own successful performance in the future. This is sometimes referred to as "basking in reflected glory" (BIRG), which really just means that when your favorite team wins, you feel like a winner, too.

So yeah, why do we find ourselves drawn to teams that seem drawn to losing? Well, wins seem to mean more for us if they're not "supposed" to happen. And if the payoff of a team winning is of greater intensity than the crushing defeat of that team losing, then it makes sense to root for it. As Daniel Engber writes at Slate, if an underdog win was four times less likely — but 10 times more gratifying — than the front-runner pulling a victory, then "rooting for the long shot would be a no-brainer."

One major factor in wins feeling more gratifying is the amount of effort we think the team is putting in. In that same 2007 Olympics study, the researchers did a few extra experiments. In one, they asked participants to watch a clip of a close basketball game in which one team (the underdog) had lost all of its previous matches, and the other (the top dog) had won all of its previous matches. Participants rated the underdog below the top dog in terms of ability, but above in terms of the effort that team expended. And unsurprisingly, they reported wanting to see the underdog win.

Of course, at this point, we've seen so many heartwarmingly successful Disney movies underdog stories that we may have actually come to think of underdogs as winners in disguise. As one study suggests, we might be attracted to the little guy because we actually think he's going to win — which we're convinced of precisely because the odds are against him. Go figure.
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