Why We Root for the Underdog
How often do you find yourself rooting for the underdog? In one study, people rooted for a fictional basketball team described as being expected to lose, rather than the team that was supposed to win, 88 percent of the time. Scientists have put forward a number of different theories on why we have such a tendency to favor the less favored.
One interesting theory is that the expected feel-good benefit of an underdog winning is so great. If you root for the team that’s expected to win and they win, you just got what you expected – no surprise and no great feeling of reward. But if you root for the underdog, the thrill of winning releases all those neurotransmitters that make you feel like you’re on top of the world.
However, it’s not enough just be the underdog. It turns out that if you are the underdog, but have a lot of available resources, people are no longer as inclined to root for you. Researchers have also found that if we know a win by the underdog will knock the favored person out of the competition, we are less likely to pull for the underdog. Rooting for someone to lose somehow seems less fair. It has also been found that if the outcome of the competition could affect us personally, we may be more likely to root for the top dog. In an experiment, people read about two water-testing companies vying for a contract to test a city’s water – one large (most likely to win the contract) and one small. People heavily favored the small company until they were told that the contract was to test the water in their city; then the larger, more established company was preferred.
The phenomenon seems to be most related to the psychic value of an unexpected success. An unexpected success is more rewarding than an expected one, and an unexpected failure is more painful. The emotional stamp on these situations create strong memories and we will remember what choices we made that led to them.