Why We Root For The Underdog
Theories on our affinity towards unlikely heroes
Centuries ago, a measly shepherd from Judah was given the impossible task of toppling a colossal warrior.
The giant was said to have been six cubits and a span in height, equipped with a bronze helmet and ironclad armour weighing some five thousand shekels. His arsenal of weapons was no less impressive. Geared with nothing more than five stones and a sling, the shepherd was severely underequipped. This was of course the Bible’s infamous story of David and Goliath, and we all know how that story went.
But this biblical parable is just one example of many. Think Rocky, who in the film was portrayed as a small-time boxer chosen to take on the world heavyweight champion Apollo Creed. Or Moneyball, a film about coach Billy Beane’s unorthodox strategy in bringing the failing Oakland Athletics into champion contention. And let’s not get into the rags to riches stories that line up tabloids and blogs.
We see stories operating under similar narratives run rampant in popular culture. Stories about underdogs seem to touch something deep in the human psyche. It is this very human tendency that authors and screenwriters exploit with the 5 point narrative arc that we have grown to love and enjoy. A protagonist is dealt with an immense obstacle to overcome, one that almost always seems impossible to defeat, but is nonetheless beaten at the crucial climax.
Psychologists call this phenomenon the underdog effect, a tendency to support an entity that is perceived as attempting to accomplish a difficult task, and that is not expected to succeed against an advantaged opponent.
We come across underdog scenarios all the time in our daily meanderings, though often not in such dramatic TV-like manners. You might secretly root for the office debutante to land her first project deal with the boss, support the disadvantaged team in a formidable derby, or hope that an underrated candidate wins a spot in the senate’s cabinet.
So why does it seem natural for humans to root for the underdog?
Many theorists have tried to postulate the reasons for this phenomenon. One suggests that schadenfreude, a malicious sense of joy triggered by another’s misfortune and suffering, might be in play. Coined by German psychologist Fritz Heider in 1958, schadenfreude asserts that the perceived high status of a top dog induces a feeling of resentment, which is what fuels the feeling of schadenfreude when the top dog suffers defeat or experiences misfortune.
“The tendency to root against the top dog may reveal a broad tendency to enjoy watching those riding high take a fall.”
We relate with the underdog
Another compelling theory is that we resonate with stories of Rocky and David and Goliath because we have been in psychologically similar situations. With our own past experiences as an underdog and frequent exposure to their cultural narratives, we easily identify and sympathise with the struggles of an underdog.
Playing devil’s advocate
Like playing contrarian, rooting for an underdog increases the excitement for the overall outcome of the competition. One-sided games are less exciting than evenly split match-ups where suspense looms large and players have to fight hard for the win. It’s even less fun when everybody roots for the top dog, which is why playing devil’s advocate and rooting for the underdog adds excitement between spectators, who hope that the underdog makes an unlikely comeback and steal the win from the top dogs— and that enriches the watching experience.
But our love and admiration for the underdog have their limits.
Where the underdog effect hits a curb
Observations from consumer behaviours reveal that the human tendency to root for the underdog has its limits in reality. We are quick to abandon the underdogs when it is in our interest to do so, which makes sense.
A large percentage of Americans dislike Walmart, the multi-billion dollar retail corp, possibly through its association as the industry’s top dog, and will possibly cede to some level of schadenfreude to see it fall. Ironically, these same people will continue to shop there because of the convenience and economical incentives that Walmart gives to its customers.
“Our hearts may be with the underdog, but our wallets are with the top dog.”
People may display the underdog effect when their interests are immune to the competitive outcome but are quick to jump ship to the top dog’s legion once it interferes with their personal interests.
Another area that we often fail to distinguish is the difference between rooting for an underdog and expecting an underdog to triumph. We may genuinely desire an underdog to topple over the top dog, but we may not necessarily want to bet our money for it. This is where our sentiment and cognition see crossroads. Our hearts may be with the underdog, but our wallets are with the top dog.
In the business setting, the underdog phenomenon may push decision-makers to make “safer” bets with top dogs, undermining sound subconscious judgement about underdogs. We have seen big companies such as Nokia, Kodak, and Blockbuster disappear into oblivion for failing to innovate. While there are many ways for a company to excel & flourish, effective innovation comes from openness towards novelty, even if that means making riskier bets on underdog ideas and businesses.
By understanding the dissonance between our natural affinity towards underdogs and aversion for making bets on their favour, we become better equipped at understanding the crucial variables and the strengths and weaknesses in our assumptions.
David understood his competitive advantage against Goliath even when others couldn’t. It was down to the naïveté of King Saul (and perhaps his underdog intuition) that led him to eventually deploy David — for the nation’s sake — to the cusps of the mighty Goliath. Had he entertained his top dog instinct or fell into the temptation of pessimism, perhaps the story would’ve unfurled differently.