Why Do We Root For The Underdogs?
From March Madness upsets, to startup garage stories and Rocky movies, we tend to always side with the underdogs - what does this tell us about humans?
This past Monday, for the first time in almost two years, I felt true pain.
The Maryland Terrapins, my beloved alma mater, were crushed at the hands of the Alabama Crimson Tide in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
No, they were absolutely not expected to win this game. They weren’t even expected to go to the second round of the tournament.
But the Terps, before this loss, were on the precipice of spinning a narrative that was commonly celebrated in the NCAA Tournament: The narrative of the underdog.
The NCAA Tournament happens every March, a single-elimination tournament designed to crown the champion in Men and Women’s college basketball. Teams are pre-seeded based on their performance in the regular season in four regions (1 - 16 each) where the seeding largely tilts the outcome of the earlier matchups.
Due to the fact that you only need one game to advance, the tournament’s appeal comes largely from its unpredictability, where lower-seeded teams can muster incredible single performances to knock out the top seeds. While people generally expect the top seeded teams to win, the adrenaline rush comes from the major upsets, also known as the “Cinderella stories”. In the early 1980s, it was given a moniker by sportscaster Brent Musberger that it’s often associated with today: March Madness.
The upsets were celebrated in my work Slack. Celebrated in my Twitter feed. People loved to see the powerful teams go down.
It got me more curious about our psychological attraction to the underdog.
Even looking beyond the NCAA Tournament, our love for the underdog is everywhere. A 1980 study showed that participants disproportionately rooted for Ronald Regan when Jimmy Carter had a lead in the pools and rooted for Carter when Reagan did. If you look up both Barack Obama and John McCain with the word “underdog” on Google, you’ll see both of them attempted to position themselves as underdogs in the election.
The biggest Silicon Valley companies we know today once also capitalized on their disruptive underdog status. Tesla positioned itself as the foil to GM and Ford. Airbnb branded itself as the alternative to the old-fashioned, resolute hotel giants. Shopify famously talks about “arming the rebels” against Amazon. Even Apple can attribute much of its initial rise to a well-publicized battle with computer behemoth IBM.
The Boston Beer Company, a billion dollar company known for its Samuel Adams beer, will never fail to remind you how small it is compared to Anheuser-Busch and Heineken.
While underdog status is inherently helpful, we can see with the Sam Adams example above that it can also be easily manipulated. It’s laughable to consider Sam Adams an underdog compared to the thousands of craft breweries competing against it.
But it does bring up a question: Is the mere perception of being an underdog beneficial to brands?
Why do we intrinsically love to root for the underdog? Why are we much less likely to root for a Facebook or Google to do something disruptive today than a new company or founder looking to shift the status quo?
It was a curious question around both branding and psychology … a chance to unpack the underdog effect.
What Causes The Underdog Effect?
While we’ve seen anecdotal examples of real brands benefiting from underdog status, studies show this sentiment persists even with totally random choices.
In one study, people were presented two fictional basketball teams playing each other in a seven-game series. The participants rooted for the team described as the underdog 88.1 percent of the time with a twist: When told that the favorite unexpectedly lost the first three games of the series, the allegiance changed.
Half of the participants suddenly found the losing team much more appealing.
In another study by Harvard and Georgetown Professors, the professors devised an experiment with chocolate. They gave one brand an underdog story - small and new, just entering the chocolate game. The other brand was characterized by experience and a big marketing budget - the “top dog” in this case.
As a result, 71% of subjects chose the underdog chocolate.
The researchers had an interesting hypothesis: A disadvantaged position, combined with passion and determination, could shift consumer preference.
In their research, they created the axis above with Nantucket Nectars, made in a blender and sold from recycled wine bottles in the late 1980s, juxtaposed with Apple and Microsoft.
One of the simplest explanations here is that we resent the top dogs simply as an expression of schadenfreude, an emotion describing the pleasure we get from watching someone’s misfortune. Derived from the compound of the German words Schaden (Damage) and Freude (Joy), it’s an odd emotion mainly because it sounds.. well, mean.
But in many cases, we can’t help it. It’s a natural reaction for our brain to choose pleasure over fear.
We recently saw schadenfreude play out with the demise of Quibi, with Wired even stating: “The schadenfreude of seeing the company stumble is the kind of relief people need right now.”
Many pointed to the audacity and ego of industry titans Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman as a factor for the ridicule. The stubborn nature of the leadership, in addition to the war chest of $1.75 billion, automatically positioned them as privileged achievers and made them a key example of business hubris gone wrong.
With all intents and purposes though, Quibi was at a disadvantaged position. It was competing against Youtube and Netflix at a particularly unique intersection of both. What it didn’t get right (outside of the bad product and marketing) was the perception that it was remotely disadvantaged, a clear miss for the founders.
But while schadenfreude is explainable for some cases, it doesn’t explain what happens when a certain situation changes or an entity becomes more disadvantaged over time.
Lebron James, for example, was reviled as a member of the star-studded Miami Heat teams. As soon as he moved to the Cavaliers and become the David to the powerful Goliath of the 2016 Golden State Warriors, he was an underdog again. Something to celebrate.
To explain this, another explanation comes from the theory of desirable difficulties, coined by psychologist Robert Bjork. The theory of desirable difficulties correlates both growth and effort with the difficulty of the adversity one has to overcome. In a sense, its perceived effort. We assume, because underdogs have more difficulties, that they work harder. The top dogs are simply lazy.
It still baffles me to this day that Kevin Durant became the most efficient scorer in NBA Finals history in the 2017 Finals, something largely overlooked because he went to a powerful team. He was criticized in the media as a traitor, as a snake, and as a cheat. The narrative maintained that he was someone who took the easy way out. Rest assured, it requires a tremendous amount of hard work to average 35 points on 56% shooting in an NBA Finals - but just by simple perception, people believed Kevin Durant was cakewalking his way to a ring.
In reality, with few exceptions, nobody that we might consider a low aspiration corporate sellout is particularly lazy. They have to work just as hard, whether they go to a hot new startup or to a large company like Microsoft or Google. But it’s an interesting bias that explains why we root for underdogs - we like the nature of having more barriers.
Then there is also the self-congruity hypothesis, the idea that consumers are more likely to be aligned to a brand personality that matches their conception of self.
In short, consumers will identify more with an underdog if they themselves feel like they are struggling.
Weinjie Li, CEO of online optical Firmoo says in this CIO Article:
It is not how the marketers perceive their audience — educated, living in above-average socio-economic conditions — but the internal selves that the consumers create for themselves that help them connect to the underdog narrative of the brand.
It’s important to note the distinction between the marketing data and the self-perception - even if you believe someone is well off, its the internal perception they have of themselves that matters.
If you are hellbent against power and corruption, regardless of how well off you are, you might support Shopify against Amazon.
In short, it doesn’t matter how much power you have. It just matters how much power you feel you have.
This is why startups have a historical appreciation of the underdog. People love startups started in garages, started by misfits, or grown by outsiders. We identify with the gravity of the story. We root for it.
In a world where little is in our control, it feels nice and comforting to have someone in a similar state of struggle be vindicated.
I recently finished Obsessed by Emily Heyward, a wonderful book about how brands can position themselves uniquely. She has a line in the book I find intriguing in the context of underdog psychology:
One of the greatest hurdles that a break-the-rules brand faces is how to stay rebellious as it grows.
It brings a lot of attention to the idea that the underdog status is essentially fleeting - when you’re small, scrappy, and reimagining outdated industries, you are beloved. Seen as the hero. Apple in 1984.
As you grow, there are many struggles you have to overcome - but one is certainly market perception. What happens when you’re the one with the target on your back? What happens when you’re no longer Jeff Bezos sitting at a desk but now Jeff Bezos, one of the richest men in the world?
What the above tells us though, is that underdog is less about any sense of market reality, but merely a sense of perception.
Shopify is a billion dollar company arming the rebels against Amazon. Boston Beer Company is a billion dollar company distancing itself from Anheuser-Busch.
Even Twitter, a large social media conglomerate, has invited new excitement about positioning itself as an underdog to Substack and Clubhouse. Simply by being in a disadvantaged people, people are looking to Twitter for new answers.
Certainly, underdog narratives can be a strategy for brands. The fact that the mere perception of being undervalued is enough to stir excitement means brands can manipulate this and cause quite a market frenzy.
It’s also an interesting chance to reflect on ourselves.
Do people actually deserve the pain from our schadenfreude?
The heat of our mistrust?
I, myself, have called Kevin Durant a snake on multiple occasions. I cheerfully rooted against every Warriors Finals team he played on. Should I be ashamed of drinking the kool-aid of my own biases? (Maybe. But, I do like him now!)
But this doesn’t mean it’s all bad. It is fun to root for underdogs. It is fun to see them win. Just like any psychology, we just have to beware of when it’s manipulated.
In any case, the zeitgeist is never too bad for a good underdog story.