The Underdog

Over at Slate, Daniel Engber has a fascinating (and thorough) investigation of why we root for the underdog. There are numerous factors at work, from the availability heuristic to our deep desire for equality. But I was most intrigued by this research, which tries to explain why we associate underdogs with virtuous characteristics, like effort and teamwork:

In one study, they [Nadav Goldschmied and Joseph Vandello] found that two-thirds of all voters in the 2004 presidential election described their preferred candidate as the "underdog." A follow-up four years later revealed that presidential candidates were deemed more likable after being characterized as an "underdog" by someone else. More recent data from Vandello's lab suggest that being cast as the underdog can make your actions seem more virtuous and your face appear more beautiful.

Why is an underdog so attractive? It may have something do with 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--which players jumped higher or who dived for the loose balls. The test subjects attributed more effort to whichever team had the underdog label.

The irony is that it remains unclear whether underdogs actually try harder. For instance, last month I wrote about the superstar effect, which suggests that golfers playing against Tiger Woods played significantly worse. Jennifer Brown, an applied economist at Northwestern who performed the analysis, argues that this is due to reduced motivation and effort:

Whenever Mr. Woods entered a tournament, every other golfer took, on average, 0.8 more strokes. While this might sound like an insignificant difference, the average margin between first and second place in PGA Tour events is frequently just a single stroke. Interestingly, the superstar effect also varied depending on the player's position on the leaderboard, with players closer to the lead showing a greater drop-off in performance. Based on this data, Ms. Brown calculated that the "superstar effect" boosted Mr. Woods's PGA earnings by nearly $5 million.

According to Ms. Brown, the superstar effect is especially pronounced when the rewards for the competition are "nonlinear," or there is an extra incentive to finish first. (We assume that the superstar will win, so why chase after meaningless scraps?) Just look at golf: Not only does the tournament winner get a disproportionate amount of prize money, but he or she also gets all the glory.

Ms. Brown cites the competition among newly hired associates at a law firm as another example of a nonlinear incentive structure. "The lawyers know that most of them won't be retained," she says. "They either win the competition, or they're let go." The problem with such competitions is that when a superstar is present--when one of the legal associates is perceived as the clear favorite--every other lawyer is less likely to exert maximum effort. Because we assume we're going to lose, we decide to cut our losses, which leads to an overall decrease in employee effort. The cutthroat competition made people less competitive.

In other words, underdogs who really believe they are underdogs - and know that they probably won't win - are less likely to put in the required effort. Why waste blood, sweat and tears on a probable loss? If that's the case, then the coaches of underdog teams play an extremely important role in helping to counteract the superstar effect. This guy deserves a raise.

But there is one group that seems resistant to the underdog bias: referees. In fact, it seems that referees are easily swayed by the emotions of the crowd, which is why they tend to give better calls to the team with home-field advantage. A 2002 experiment showed professional soccer referees a videotaped match and had them make officiating decisions. Half of the referees watched the game without sound, while the other half were exposed to simulated crowd noise. These cheers significantly biased the calls of the referees: On average, they called 2.3 fewer fouls against the home team when listening to the sound of the crowd.

Studies of actual soccer matches in the English Premier League support the experiment. (The English leagues are a popular subject for researchers because the matches feature animated audiences and take place within the same time zone, reducing the complicating factor of travel fatigue.) A 2007 analysis of more than 5,000 soccer matches found that, on average, home teams scored 1.5 goals while away teams scored 1.1 goals. This difference increased with crowd size, so that each additional 10,000 spectators increased the home-team advantage by 0.1 goals. The most surprising element of the research, however, was that the scoring disparity was largely the result of referees, with less experienced referees calling significantly more penalties against the visiting team. They seemed intimidated by the rowdy fans.

A study of the Winter Olympics found that, although host countries enjoyed a large advantage - they collected significantly more medals than normal - this edge was limited to "subjectively judged events," such as freestyle skiing and figure skating. There was no host-country advantage in timed events. This suggests that cheering crowds influenced the verdicts of the judges, not the performance of the athletes.

In other words, while the rest of us are rooting for the underdog, the referees are just trying not to get booed. And since the underdogs rarely have home-field advantage, the data suggests that refs and umps actively counter our desire for underdog victories. They make the superstars more likely to win.

Update: Go Lakers!

More like this

It seems like people describe their candidate or team as the underdog as long as they have a decent shot of becoming the Cinderella story. Strategy, intelligence and effort are emphasized. Once their candidate or team cannot win, their side is that of the outsider who portrays values and principles. Nobility of character, rather than drama of accomplishment, defines the outsiders view of himself or herself.

By Gopherus Agassizii (not verified) on 04 May 2010 #permalink

I'm not convinced of Jennifer Brown's conclusion.

But perhaps it is true, and perhaps this is why the best athlete's are all so cocky--cockiness blocks out all these things and just focuses on winning.

Would you not see this as being something that centres around Status hope (see David Rock's SCARF model)- rather like American (or any country) Idol - we like underdogs because it allows us to believe that we could also achieve that increase in status if we tried...

Fascinating. And somewhat disheartening. Since the Soccer World Cup is coming up, this article will provide a good deal of conversation material ... during the commercial breaks!

What angers an underdog? And both kinds, the one who believes he'll eventually win and the one who believes he's got no chance...

I wonder if horses also experience a superstar effect in the Kentucky Derby?

Just got around to reading this, but I have to say I disagree with one of the points from Jennifer Brown. The scores are higher in the tournaments that Tiger Woods participates in because he is playing the higher dollar tournaments (those "nonlinear" ones) which are at tougher courses and which are more stressful circumstances for all of the competitors. Looking simply at the scores when Tiger plays or does not play does not eliminate the reality that all courses are not created equally. How to quantify that is another problem entirely.

Being an underdog and having a homecourt advantage are two different things.