EDITOR’S NOTE APPENDED
At a town hall on the eve of the New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper lodged a question at candidate Senator Bernie Sanders. After a strong performance in Iowa, Sanders’ quixotic rise was beginning to seem less surprising than inevitable.
“You’re way up in the polls,” said Cooper. “Are you still an underdog?”
Sanders appeared to bristle. “Of course I am an underdog,” he replied.
Defending your place on the bottom of the political pile seems like a remarkable campaign strategy, but it’s also a time-honored political move. Both Barack Obama and John McCain referred to themselves as underdogs during their 2008 faceoff; Obama even resurrected the phrase during his re-election bid in 2012. Between Trump’s outsider gumption and Sanders’ anti-establishment campaign, U.S. News has labeled the 2016 election “The Year of the Underdog.”
From fairy tales to Hollywood epics, our classic stories follow the rise of an against-all-odds hero — with no concern for fall-out. Take the “Rocky” franchise. It’s a given that Sylvester Stallone’s the one to root for; the devastating effects of an unexpected defeat for the odds-on favorite are left unexplored.
Joseph Vandello, a professor of psychology at the University of Florida, first noticed the pattern during the NCAA basketball tournament in 2007. “There’s always some small school in that tournament that comes out of nowhere and everyone supports that team,” Vandello says. He posed the question to his then grad-student, Nadav Goldschmied, and the two set out to unpack the phenomenon.
At the time, the literature on underdogs was scarce, and limited to athletics. In a seminal paper, The Underdog Concept In Sport, Jimmy Frazier and Eldon Snyder, both researchers from Bowling Green State University, first documented the effect. The pair asked a group to evaluate who they would root for in an imaginary sports match: a favored team, or a team with a worse record. Eighty-one percent chose the underdog. Then, the same group was asked to imagine their feelings if the underdog team won the first three games of a series. Half of the participants flipped their affiliation.
Vandello and Goldschmied ran a series of experiments exploring underdogs beyond the athletic field. In a survey of a group of undergrads, 64 percent considered their favored political candidate the underdog, regardless of how well they were doing in the polls.
Strikingly, these studies didn’t just show a tendency to support underdogs, they also showed a tendency to assign them positive qualities. In one instance, participants were asked to read a speech of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama, or a newspaper article covering the race. In some of the samples, Obama was portrayed as an underdog, in others, the front-runner. People rated Obama as warmer when he was portrayed as the underdog, an effect that was even stronger when the press was labeling him that way than when he was commandeering the title for himself.
In another study, Vandello asked students to watch a basketball game in which they were told that one team was the favorite. After watching the footage, the viewers characterized the underdog team as having less “intelligence” and “talent,” but more “hustle” and “heart.” The pattern was consistent, even when Vandello flipped the label, giving the other team the ‘underdog’ stature. The viewers were projecting authenticity on whomever they thought was losing.
The influence of the underdog begins to get amusing. Underdogs appear more attractive, they’re more likely to get a job, and present a more appealing entity in foreign relations. In one study, subjects given an account of a fictitious country planting a bomb were more likely to find the act acceptable and even “moral” if the country carrying out the attack was considered weak. In a particularly amusing experiment, students were shown to “prefer and sympathize with” animated geometric shapes — circles, to be specific — that were given an incline to struggle through, versus the pompous non-struggling circles.
What gives? Why do we like people and teams that seem likely to lose? In many ways, it’s inexplicable. Aligning ourselves with a dark horse candidate goes against some of the basic tenets of psychology. Social identification theory predicts that we covet and emphasize relationships with successful people — a way of increasing our own status by association. Frazier and Snyder chalked up the underdog affinity to a simple emotional equation: Games are more thrilling to watch when a predetermined outcome is thwarted. (Other psychologists have speculated that we root for the underdog to live out a live-action form of schadenfreude.)
But this doesn’t explain why we apply the same feel-good emotional economics to big things like political elections and interpreting war. (Could a thirst for an exciting fight really drive Donald Trump’s supporters?)
Vandello believes the explanation is more complicated: Rooting for the underdog is a way of confronting, and trying to rectify, inequality.
“We like to see the scale of justice balanced,” he says. “Sometimes groups are disadvantaged and that strikes us as uncomfortable. When we can’t do anything about it, we can always root for their success.”
Vandello and Goldschmied created an experiment to test this theory. First, they presented a group of students with an underdog battle between Team A (the favorite to win) and Team B (the underdog). Then, it was revealed that Team A had fewer resources than Team B, with payrolls of $35 million and $100 million, respectively. When polled, two-thirds of the respondents supported Team A. The experiment showed that alliances with the underdog are easily discarded given the right set of circumstances — and, that these alliances have less to do with jiggering the odds for an exciting match than rectifying unequal resources.
Still, there are limits to this kind of support. Scott Allison, a psychologist at the University of Richmond, describes an underdog drop-off as the “Wal-Mart effect.” Theoretically, we’ll support the mom-and-pop store in town, but when it comes time to buy a TV, we’ll go to the place with the cheaper price.
To demonstrate this effect, Allison presented a group of subjects with a hypothetical: A pair of companies — one large and well-established, the other a hustling start-up — were sparring for a contract to test the drinking water in Boise, Idaho. As predicted, most of the subjects awarded the contract to the start-up. But then, the lab changed the scenario: What if the water was in the subjects’ hometown, and there was risk that it might contain “cancer-causing mercury”?
With a visceral, close-to-home risk, the subjects flipped their alliance. They were heavily in favor of the established brand.
“We may feel morally good about rooting for the underdog, but our positive reaction is quite malleable,” the researchers concluded. In the end, we’re likely to act pragmatically, regardless of the rush that come from holding the moral high ground.
Editor’s Note: After publication, Undark received information regarding some structural and syntactic similarities between this article and a lengthy examination of underdog psychology published by Slate in 2010. While some of the overlap was the result of parallel reporting and independent interviews with the same researcher in a narrow field of study, other similarities can only be attributed to a clear influence of the earlier piece on the latter. At a minimum, Undark’s piece should have acknowledged and linked to Slate’s previous work.