It is strange how we enjoy rooting for the underdog.
Why is it so appealing to back the team or person with the smallest chance of victory? Various studies have been conducted to try and understand this phenomenon.
We are more prone to wanting the little guy to win than we might like to admit. In one study, respondents were given no other context except that one team is the underdog. More than 80% chose the underdog. We all love the story of the schoolboy or girl with the least chance to succeed, becoming prom king or queen. Hollywood has made the surprise victory by ‘the little guy,’ a staple theme for moviegoers. From sports fields, to political arenas, to boardrooms, wherever people are competing, there’s an underdog. On one side there are the well-funded, popular, and best equipped for the task. And on the other side, the scrappy team of misfits with little to no-chance of competing.
The one explanation for why we wish the underdog would gain the upper hand, is based on us wanting the world to be fair and just. In a study, participants were told that one team is the underdog. The support was in favour of the underdogs. Yet, when the participants heard that the underdogs had spent significantly more money on players than the favourite team, more than half of the respondents switched their allegiance to the ‘poorer’ favourite side. This suggests we don’t only favour the underdog; we also believe the win must be ‘deserved.’
It is comforting to know that everyone has an equal shot of success. Secretly, we all love an upset, so long as it’s not our team on the losing side. Seeing the bigger, stronger, older, wealthier, more established teams stumble to a smaller team, gives us hope that the world can be fair.
There are those that argue wishing for the underdog to win is a way of preventing yourself from disappointment. You thus have less to lose if you lose, and more to gain if you win. The concept of Schadenfreude is the pleasure we experience at the loss, troubles, misfortune or injury of another. There is a streak of schadenfreude in us all. Think of how much we love to see the team that wins year in and year out, tumble to a smaller rival.
Seeing the underdog win in an unexpected triumph, against all odds, gives us hope that anyone can achieve the seemingly impossible. The more unlikely a win is, the more we want to see it happen. In one study, participants were shown a game where the underdog team they supported had won the game. When the participants were tested afterwards, they had increased self-esteem, and were more positive about their future.
As weird as it may seem that we don’t automatically back the side with the best chance of winning, it’s also obvious that we should back the underdog. If an underdog win is 4 times less likely, but 10 times more gratifying than the favourite winning, then rooting for the long shot becomes a no-brainer.
When it comes to making a choice of who to back between the favourite and the underdog in something like sports, we like the underdog. It’s about that unexpected surprise when your heart jumps at the audacity of the victory. But, research shows, we will go back to the favourite, when there is something significant at stake. If the decision is going to negatively affect our health, or our futures, we gladly back the favourite to win.
There is no doubt, backing the underdog gives us a sense of excitement, of the impossible coming true against all odds. And every now and then, we get rewarded with that feeling of basking in the reflected glory of our winning team.
Have an awesome weekend. 😉
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