FANS OF SPORTS underdogs have had an amazing run in the first half of this year. In February, the New Orleans Saints won their first-ever Super Bowl, an upset victory over the invincible Colts. At the beginning of April, a little-known college from the Midwest made it to the NCAA basketball title game against the hated Duke Blue Devils. And more recently, the Oklahoma City Thunder very nearly forced the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers to a seventh game in the first round of the NBA playoffs.
Reason tells us this run will soon be over—underdogs are underdogs because they usually lose. But all of us share in the occasional joy—and more frequent misery—of rooting for the improbable.
Case in point: I cheered for Butler University’s men’s basketball team, ranked No. 5 in their region, as the long shot against Duke, a No. 1 seed. But a few days before, when the Bulldogs had played another five seed, Michigan State, I didn’t know which team was the underdog. The only solution was to root for the side that happened to be losing. Soon I found myself cheering for a Michigan State team that couldn’t get it together in the second half. They made a late run—closing to within one point in the final minute—but, alas, my disappointment was guaranteed: If the Spartans had come back, I would have been pulling for Butler. When the game ended, I fell into a sour mood.
“What did you expect?” my girlfriend asked. Rooting for the little guy is the American way, I said. It’s Horatio Alger and Rocky Balboa and the Miracle on Ice. It’s human nature.
That didn’t quite answer her question. What’s so natural about our love for the underdog? Why do sports fans choose to suffer?
RESEARCHERS HAVE FOUND plenty of support for the opposite tendency: When choosing our favorite sports teams, we are drawn to winners, like the Yankees, in baseball, or the Lakers, in pro basketball. Other factors—like where you live—can influence your choice. But “team success is kind of like the icing on the cake,” says Daniel Wann, a Murray State psychologist who studies the causes and consequences of being a fan.
Of course, sometimes too much icing ruins the cake. In 1991, a pair of researchers at Bowling Green State University, Jimmy Frazier and Eldon Snyder, published a paper on “the underdog concept in sport.” Frazier and Snyder posed a simple hypothetical scenario to more than 100 college students: Two teams, A and B, were meeting in a best-of-seven playoff series for some unidentified sport, and Team A was “highly favored” to win. Which team would the students root for? Eighty-one percent chose the underdog. Then the students were asked to imagine that Team B had somehow managed to win the first three games of the series. Would the subjects root for the sweep or switch allegiance to the favorite? Half of those who first picked the underdog now said they’d support Team A. It was the same cockamamie approach I’d taken to Butler and Michigan State: Root, root, root for the losing team—no matter what.
Why? Frazier and Snyder tried to explain the effect with a bit of emotional economics. The sports spectator might be seen as a hedonistic animal, they argued, always out to maximize her excitement. So long as she’s not beholden to any one team for sentimental reasons—she’s a life-long Royals fan, perhaps—then she’ll choose her rooting interest based on a rational calculation of costs and benefits. Since a close game provides more entertainment than one that’s lopsided, the self-interested fan might, for example, choose to support whichever team happens to be behind on the scoreboard. That’s what I did in the Final Four: Instead of pulling for one side or the other, I hoped the game would go into triple overtime. When the underdog role is more firmly established, there’s a tendency to gamble your emotions on the team that’s most likely to reward you with a stirring victory. For Frazier and Snyder, that means betting on the underdog: If the underdog wins, it’s the greatest feeling in the world. And if they lose—well, you kind of knew that would happen all along.
But let’s give this a closer look. In effect, Frazier and Snyder are saying that the expected value of a bet on an underdog—its average payoff in raw, chest-bumping excitement—will always be higher than the expected value of a bet on the favorite. In other words, if you multiplied the odds of an underdog victory by the amount of pleasure it would produce, you’d end up with a higher number. Let’s say the odds against the Giants beating the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII was 4-to-1. In Frazier and Snyder’s scenario, it would only have made sense for the hedonistic sports fan with no prior loyalties to pull for the Giants if he could anticipate that it would be more than four times as gratifying to see the Giants triumph than see the Patriots do the same. But to assume that an upset would confer such dazzling, disproportionate joy begs the main question: What makes the underdog so wonderful to begin with?
HERE’S AN ALTERNATIVE to Frazier and Snyder’s utilitarian model. Let’s assume the pleasure of an upset is exactly proportional to its odds: If Butler were half as likely as Duke to win the NCAA championship, then a Bulldogs victory would feel twice as good. But now imagine that we have all convinced ourselves, for one reason or another, that Butler had some hidden advantage that didn’t show up in the Vegas betting line. Maybe it was the team’s unbreakable heart or its selfless coach. If we gave our own inflated odds to the underdog but expected the reward would be undiminished, then betting on the long shot would make rational sense.
Researchers have found evidence for exactly this phenomenon—called the “favorite-long-shot bias”—at the horse track. One recent study that compiled stats from some 6 million American horse races showed a steep drop-off in the return on winning bets as the odds against those bets increased. In other words, bettors were throwing money at the underdogs and underbidding on the favorites. That, the authors argue, is because we tend to overestimate the long shots’ chances.
This bias might be explained by a tendency that behavioral economists have labeled the “availability heuristic”: We make judgments about probability based on whatever data springs most easily to mind. When you think about horse racing, which comes to mind first: Seabiscuit’s underdog victory in the 1938 Pimlico Special or Cool Coal Man’s unremarkable loss at the 2008 Kentucky Derby? If you’re thinking about Seabiscuit when you step up to the betting window, you’ll be more inclined toward horses with long odds. The same goes for any other sport. We’ll reminisce about the fifth-seeded Butler Bulldogs for years to come. But what about Temple and Texas A&M—similarly ranked teams that didn’t make it through the first weekend of the tournament?
SO HOW BIASED are we? A few years ago, a graduate student named Nadav Goldschmied decided to find out. Goldschmied, who’s now a professor of psychology at the University of San Diego, invited students to read a fake newspaper article about an upcoming rugby match. According to the article, odds makers had given one of the teams just a 30 percent chance of victory. When asked to make their own predictions, the students were more optimistic. Instead of pegging the underdog’s odds at 30 percent, they guessed it was more like 41 percent. If the article specifically referred to the disadvantaged team as an “underdog,” the effect was even stronger, with the students pegging the chance of victory at 44 percent.
Goldschmied repeated the experiment twice more, replacing the rugby teams with mayoral candidates and then a pair of businesses competing for a contract. In each case, the results were the same: The mere act of labeling one side as an underdog made the students think they were more likely to win.
A purely economic theory of underdogs doesn’t satisfy Goldschmied, nor does it appeal to his former mentor, Joseph Vandello of the University of South Florida. Their work has shown that our love for the little guy is as much a judgment of character as an emotional investment. For some reason, we tend to assign positive attributes to whichever side is at a disadvantage.
The utter ubiquity of this effect is part of what makes it so remarkable. Vandello has found that between two-thirds and three-quarters of us are prone to its influence, regardless of gender, political orientation, or personality type. And it applies in areas as diverse as international relations, product branding, and the dating market. In one study, they found that two-thirds of all voters in the 2004 presidential election described their preferred candidate as the “underdog.”
Why is an underdog so attractive? It may have something to do with our perception of how hard he tries. Vandello showed subjects a video clip of a basketball game between two international teams said to be playing for a championship. One side was described as the 9-to-1 favorite, having won each of 15 previous playoff matches. After viewing the footage, which showed a close game, students were asked to rate the players according to their ability and effort.
As a rule, the underdogs were characterized as having less “talent” and “intelligence” than the favorites but more “hustle” and “heart.” That was true even when subjects viewed the same video clip with the labels reversed. It didn’t matter what was actually on the screen. The test subjects attributed more effort to whichever team had the underdog label.
But there’s one problem with the idea that underdogs deserve more support because they try harder: In real-life competition, underdogs don’t seem to have any more gumption than the odds-on favorites. In fact, recent data suggests that the underdogs might be dogging it.
For a study published in January, researchers Nathan Pettit and Robert Lount tested a bunch of undergraduates on a simple cognitive task—their ability to generate possible uses for a knife. Some students were told their scores would be compared with those of students at a more prestigious university, while others believed they were going head-to-head with students at a worse school.
The subjects who believed they were up against the stronger competition ended up performing worse on the test. Playing the role of the underdog appeared to sap their motivation. Likewise, the group that was ostensibly paired with a lower-ranked school seemed to try harder.
Another paper, by economist Jennifer Brown, used the results of hundreds of PGA golf tournaments to arrive at a similar conclusion. She examined how the performance of professional golfers changed when they were playing against Tiger Woods. Controlling for the course, the weather, and other factors, Brown found that Tiger’s opponents shot almost a full stroke worse, on average, whenever he was in the tournament. Brown calls this an “adverse superstar effect”: In the face of a superior opponent, pro golfers have less incentive to compete.
FORTUNATELY, OUR ALLEGIANCE to underdogs is, according to another group of researchers, “a mile wide and an inch deep.” Sure, I rooted for Butler, but I can’t recall even having cheered against my “hometown” Giants or Knicks on behalf of some plucky long shot. I realize that upsets are exciting, but … let’s go Mets!
Scott Allison, a professor at the University of Richmond, has a theory about underdog fandom that he calls the “Wal-Mart effect.” People root for the neighborhood store when a mega-discounter moves in down the street, but when it’s time to buy a new TV, they opt for the cheaper price. Mom and pop may win our heart, says Allison, but they’re not getting our money. He’s shown that people favor the favorite when the stakes are meaningful.
Perhaps that’s why the underdog seems most at home in the trivial world of sports—where the outcome hardly matters.
From a story originally published by Slate.com. Used with permission. All rights reserved. The full version of the story can be found at Slate.com.