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Why We Love When Losers Win and Heroes Fall

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heroes, failure, underdog, psychology

An unemployed neighbor wins the lottery, a friend who regularly boasts about his good health becomes ill. We are highly sensitive to changing fortunes of others. We want to know who’s doing worse and who’s doing better than before, as these shifts in our social environment may have implications for our own well-being. In particular we are drawn to unexpected changes: underdogs that beat the odds and top dogs that fall from grace. Whether we witness the creation of a hero or the demise of a hero – we love it.

We have all known the underdog, the figure who is not expected to succeed due to, for example, a history of past failures, low probabilities for future success, smaller size or fewer resources. Then there is that added dimension that truly makes an underdog: we perceive their disadvantage as undeserved.

Joseph Vandello, Nadav Goldschmied and David Richards of the University of South Florida demonstrated the appeal of underdogs in an experiment examining people’s support tendencies in a real-world sporting context: the summer Olympics of 2004. The researchers presented participants with a list of five countries followed by each country’s all-time medal totals at the Olympics. Thus, a country’s underdog status was operationalized as past Olympic medal success.
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Participants were then asked to imagine two of the countries engaged in an upcoming swimming contest, for example the top-ranked team (Sweden) playing the bottom-ranked team (Slovenia), and to rate how much they wanted each team to win. They found that people were significantly more in favor of the underdog winning than the top dog.

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It makes us feel even better to support those with a disadvantage. Not because we like backing losers, but because we love to see losers beat the odds.

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Perhaps it’s not surprising that people prefer underdogs, given the numerous sympathetic or heroic examples of underdogs in books and movies as well as in real life sports and politics. But why do we prefer an underdog when we can identify ourselves with an established hero? Identification with success may boost our self-esteem, but it makes us feel even better to support those with a disadvantage. Not because we like backing losers, but because we love to see losers beat the odds. It all has to with an evolved trait: our sense of fairness.

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Aversion against inequity

Humanity’s preference for fairness and resistance to pre-determined inequalities is called inequity aversion. We don’t like unfair advantages. According to an animal study, it’s a trait with an early evolutionary origin. Sarah Brosnan and Frans de Waal demonstrated that the brown capuchin monkey (Cebus apella) responds negatively to unequal reward distribution. During the experiment, the monkeys refused to participate any longer after witnessing another monkey obtain a more attractive reward for equal or less effort.

Like monkeys, humans are developed as a highly cooperative species. It is thought that during the evolution of cooperation it has become critical for humans to compare their own efforts and outcomes with those of others. Negative reactions may occur when we perceive inequalities. For example, when expectations about the outcome of cooperation and the division of resources are violated. In other words, if you know the game is rigged, you’re less likely to want to play.

People don’t respond negatively to inequity only out of self-interest. Whether we are disadvantaged ourselves, or others are – we are bothered by it. We feel “guilty” or unhappy when we receive an undeserved reward. In addition, economists Fehr and Schmidt have shown that people are even willing to sacrifice their own interests for the sake of restoring balance.

According to Vandello and Goldschmied, inequity aversion drives our love for underdogs, “above and beyond” emotional self-interest. They proved this theory to be true in an experiment in which they presented the participants with a classic underdog scenario: Team A and B are about to play an important match, for which team A was the odds-on favorite.

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The students were then asked to imagine that players on Team A had lower salaries than the ones on Team B. Which team would the students root for – the successful small-market team, or the unsuccessful big-market team? Two-thirds supported the favorite, Team A.

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People may generally root for underdogs for the simple reason that unexpected victories are more emotionally satisfying than expected victories.

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People may generally root for underdogs for the simple reason that unexpected victories are more emotionally satisfying than expected victories. On the contrary, expected losses are not as hard to take as unexpected losses. However, studies show that when two kinds of underdogs go head-to-head, people prefer the one with better odds but less resources. Apparently, low expectations for success  are not enough on their own to  generate support if people don’t feel it would be a deserved win. So you may be an underdog, but you might also be a well paid underdog, which makes it less appealing to root for you when facing another underdog who is not well paid.

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Although people are willing to put aside their emotional self-interests for the sake of restoring equity, there are limits. Our love for those who are disadvantaged seems to be a fickle thing, as studied by Scott Allisson, a professor at the University of Richmond. He calls it the “Wal-Mart effect”: “We root for our neighborhood store when a mega-discounter moves in down the street. But when it’s time to buy a new television, we opt for the cheaper price,” Allison explains in the Slate’s article The Underdog Effect – why we love a loser. “Mom and pop may win our heart, but they’re not getting our money.”

What goes up must come down

Although the position of the underdog is a fragile one, we clearly do enjoy witnessing their fortunes change. When the underdog achieves the unexpected, we lovingly acclaim them as our new heroes. But the story doesn’t end there.

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Because once we’ve carefully built up our heroes, we love nothing more then seeing them crumble. This phenomenon is called schadenfreude: taking pleasure from someone else’s misfortune – particularly those more successful than us.

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Once we’ve carefully built up our heroes, we love nothing more then seeing them crumble

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One individual demonstrating the workings of this peculiar cycle is Barack Obama. Being of mixed race and from a not so wealthy family, he automatically earned an underdog status when he first ran for president. But during Obama’s four years in the White House, the economy of the United States has continued to struggle. Public opinion shifted against him as many began to see the poor economy as a reflection of Obama’s presidency. Not just his opponents, but also many of his former supporters, who had enthusiastically helped build his reputation in 2008, now turned against him. In a 2011 White House interview for ABC News and Yahoo.com, Obama called himself, again, the underdog in this year’s presidential election because of the faltering economy.

Although the fact that we love to both built up and destroy heroes  seems paradoxical, it actually comes from the same source. The reason we resent the advantaged and are  attracted to the disadvantaged is because we want equity. Either by supporting an underdog, or by destroying a top dog. It’s like that Will Rogers’ poem: “We can’t all be heroes – somebody has to sit on the curb and applaud when they go by.


References

Brosnan SF, & De Waal FB (2003). Monkeys reject unequal pay. Nature, 425 (6955), 297-9 PMID: 13679918
Vandello, J., Goldschmied, N., & Richards, D. (2007). The Appeal of the Underdog Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33 (12), 1603-1616 DOI: 10.1177/0146167207307488
Feather, N., & Sherman, R. (2002). Envy, Resentment, Schadenfreude, and Sympathy: Reactions to Deserved and Undeserved Achievement and Subsequent Failure Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28 (7), 953-961 DOI: 10.1177/014616720202800708
Fehr, E. (1998). A Theory of Fairness, Competition and Cooperation SSRN Electronic Journal DOI: 10.2139/ssrn.106228

The original article appeared in our November/December 2012 issue: Rooting for the Underdog

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