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The Appeal of the Underdog

Why are we drawn to underdogs?

Do we prefer to support winners or losers? And if we do back the underdog, why is this?

One interesting perspective to these questions is offered by research on the "underdog." Headed by Josepth Vandello, associate professor of psychology at The University of South Florida, several studies have explored if people prefer underdogs to favorites, and why they support them.

In one study, participants were more supportive of Israel in the conflict against Palestine when Israel was framed as an underdog. A second study found the same thing in the context of Olympic events. In other words, people preferred to support the underdog over the favorite.

In two follow up studies, Vandello and colleagues explored the possible reasons why people are so attracted to underdogs. In one study, participants rated underdogs as higher in effort, and in turn, this was related to support for the underdog (the effect of underdog on support was mediated by perceived effort). Put differently, people liked underdogs more because they thought they worked harder.

In another follow up study, participants read a scenario about a team that was likely to lose. They described them as an "underdog" unless they had more financial resources than the opponent. This suggests that merely being likely to lose is not enough to rally the troops in support of you or your team.

If we want to feel good about ourselves, it would seem easier to pick the favorites and back them wholeheartedly. But, curiously, people don't tend to do this. Instead, they back the underdog.

We like to back the team that has its back against the wall, not because we like backing losers, but because we like to see a team beat the odds.