Why Everyone Loves (Really Loves) an Underdog

A fascinating study reveals a hidden reason we find some people attractive.

Posted Apr 26, 2013

Glaze Image/Shutterstock
Source: Glaze Image/Shutterstock

A significant body of research suggests we tend to be more attracted to advantaged individuals. But when someone has been disadvantaged unfairly, being the underdog can actually make that person appear significantly more physically attractive.

The Allure of the Underdog

In a recent study, 78 participants were randomly assigned to four groups and told about a person applying for a job who had either a fair or unfair advantage or disadvantage.

The applicants with advantages either had a leg up on the competition because their resume was superior (a fair advantage) or because they had a friend who pressured the human resources department to hire them (an unfair advantage). The applicants with disadvantages either hadn’t completed the application properly (a fair disadvantage—it’s the applicant’s fault) or had their resume lost by a bungling secretary (an unfair disadvantage).

All study participants were then shown a photograph of the applicant and asked to rate their physical attractiveness and indicate how pleasant their personalities were likely to be. Of course, unbeknownst to them, the participants in all four groups were all shown the exact same photograph.

The Findings

As we might expect, the participants judged fairly advantaged candidates as more attractive than both unfairly advantaged applicants and fairly disadvantaged applicants. But they judged the underdog who was not personally responsible for failing (because their resume was lost by the secretary) as more attractive than those who succeeded unfairly (because their friend pressured the HR person) and those who bungled their application. Remember: All the groups were judging the same photograph.

The Emotional and Physical Appeal of the Underdog

Sports films typically depict the story of an underdog who overcomes challenges and wins despite all odds being against them (42, The Blindside, The Rookie). This is primarily because those character arcs are more exciting and emotionally satisfying than the story of a winning team that simply ... wins again.

In other words, we are usually drawn to the underdog story.

However, the new study expands this notion and indicates that the unfair disadvantage of the underdog evokes an emotional response in us that is powerful enough to extend to how we perceive their actual appearance, such that we find them more physically appealing as well.

For a book full of interesting studies and ways they can help you in daily life, check out Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume,2014).

Copyright 2013 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch


K. S. Michniewicz, & J. A., Vandello, The attractive underdog: When disadvantage bolsters attractiveness Journal of Social and Personal Relationships March 4, 2013 as doi:10.1177/0265407513477629