Underdog Fever Is Far

We inherited from our forager ancestors a strong social norm of coordinating to resist dominance. But we follow this norm more in far mode than in near. Other folks far away, they should indignantly rebel and overthrow their oppressors, but we here must be careful and not oversimplify things.  For example, voters in other districts should throw out their corrupt politicians, but thankfully we can trust our politicians.

Also, when have little personally at stake, we support underdogs in sports, politics, and business. We overestimate their chances, and think them relatively hard-working, likable, virtuous, and beautiful. A sports team who is likely to win but gets paid less, however, is the underdog – dominance is more about overall gains than wins. But if we think a contest is close or important, such as if a business is close to home or if lives are on the line, we prefer overdogs. Details:

Two teams, A and B, were meeting in a best-of-seven playoff series for some unidentified sport, and Team A was “highly favored” to win. Which team would the students root for? Eighty-one percent chose the underdog. Then the students were asked to imagine that Team B had somehow managed to win the first three games of the series. … Half of those who first picked the underdog now said they’d support Team A. …

[Researchers] invited students to read a fake newspaper article about an upcoming rugby match. According to the article, odds makers had given one of the teams just a 30 percent chance of victory. When asked to make their own predictions, the students were more optimistic. Instead of pegging the underdog’s odds at 30 percent, they guessed it was more like 41 percent. If the article specifically referred to the disadvantaged team as an “underdog,” the effect was even stronger, with the students pegging the chance of victory at 44 percent. .. Replacing the rugby teams with mayoral candidates and then a pair of businesses competing for a contract, … the results were the same. …

Our love for the little guy is as much a judgment of character as an emotional investment. … Two-thirds of all voters in the 2004 presidential election described their preferred candidate as the “underdog.” … Presidential candidates were deemed more likable after being characterized as an “underdog”. … Being cast as the underdog can make your actions seem more virtuous and your face appear more beautiful. …

One side was described as the 9-to-1 favorite, having won each of 15 previous playoff matches. After viewing footage … 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. … In fact, recent data suggest that the underdogs might be dogging it. …

Two teams, A and B, are about to play an important match, for which Team A was the odds-on (7-to-3) favorite. … The students were to imagine that the players on Team A had lower salaries than the ones on Team B—their payrolls were $35 million and $100 million, respectively. … Two-thirds supported the favorite, Team A. … This was evidence that inequity aversion drives the underdog effect, “above and beyond” emotional self interest. …

A pair of companies were vying for a contract to test the drinking water in far-off Boise, Idaho. One was a large, well-established firm founded 30 years ago; the other was an eager startup. … People were inclined toward the underdog. But … if the subjects were told that the water in question might contain “cancer-causing mercury,” the underdog effect disappeared. And if the site of the water testing was changed from “Boise, Idaho” to somewhere in their own community, … subjects started rooting against the underdog.

Our affinity for the lesser team “is a mile wide and an inch deep. … We may feel morally good about rooting for the underdog, but our positive reaction is quite malleable.” … Perhaps that’s why the underdog seems most at home in the trivial world of team sports. With nothing much at stake, we’re free to indulge an idle preference for an upset. “At an unconscious level, we know we don’t take underdogs all that seriously.”

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  • Buck Farmer

    This seems to match with the idea that we are less status-conscious, pragmatic when things are distant from us. At least this matches my observations of when people swallow their principles.

    I’d say the principle at play is that we are all in fact equal and that any hierarchies are temporary (and pernicious to cooperation). Clear dominance (but not so clear as to be utterly hopeless) violates this principle and we can display our commitment to this principle to ourselves and others by rooting for the underdog.

    That would explain why we would evolve such an odd preference, I think.

  • Jess RIedel

    I’ve heard it said that the affinity for underdogs is a somewhat American phenomenon. Have there been any studies in non-American, and especially non-Western, cultures?

  • mjgeddes

    This effect is clear in Betfair sports prediction markets. Far (a long time from the start of an event), favorites are systemically under-rated and outsiders over-rated. Near (close to the start of an event) however, the market has corrected and the effect has disappeared. So you need to get in early to exploit this.

    • Buck Farmer

      I imagine it’s hard to parse out, but is the correlation between distance from the event or the size of the market?

      I.e. far from the event few people are betting and the market is illiquid, but near the event many people are betting and the liquid market reveals who the true favorites are.

      I don’t know why on average the bias should only go one way at the beginning. Is this a smart/stupid money distinction?

      • mjgeddes

        I don’t know. What you say sounds plausible, yes, probably the stupid put their money on first, and the smart put their money on closer to the event, so the smart ruthlessly prey on the stupid, ain’t that always the way of things 😉

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  • When people saw the world as increasingly more dangerous during the ’60s through the ’80s (primarily due to crime rates soaring), their time horizon shrunk and they wanted an odds-on favorite like Reagan to kick some ass. When they saw the world getting safer and safer (as crime rates fell during the ’90s and 2000s), they were OK with voting for dorks like Bush and Obama who wouldn’t have done well in a prediction market in 1984.

    Same with cop and military movies — when times were dangerous and we felt threatened, we wanted Rambo or Dirty Harry to clean things up, not a short, skinny, pointy-headed bureaucrat or ambassador who’d crusade rather than achieve.

    • HonestAlbert

      I must signal that I am of a different social group than you by opposing your Sophomoric signaling Words like “dork” (haven’t heard that word used by anyone over 16 before).

      I must also signal my distaste for your big red personal signal flare that you feel the need to fire off every time you type something on the internet. The 80s sucked. Crime, racism, homophobia, cleptocracy, supporting fascism abroad, horrible movies, god-awful music, and the worst television shows I’ve ever seen outside of daytime soap operas.

      But we get it, you loved the 80s. I don’t think there is anyone left on the internet who doesn’t know how much you drool over the 80s. So can we please stop being reminded of it?

  • Funny, you sound like you’d enjoy the taste of another guy firing off his big red personal signal flare.

    Crime and supporting fascism abroad was true, but the rest is a joke (TV was only because an oligopoly was sanctioned). The last period of inter-racial toleration was roughly 1975 – 1984. No more white interest in black culture after 1991 or so, unlike with all-black sitcoms and movies before then. It died for certain with Generation X’s self-flagellation and crying about white skin privilege guilt. Cleptocracy was in reality a ’90s – 2000s thing — read the news.

    The latter half of the ’70s and ’80s was also the period of gay liberation, for whatever that’s worth. Certainly straights were more into gay culture back then, rather than paying lip service to tolerance (recall Robin’s recent post that tolerance is accepting something you find disgusting). Freddie Mercury was more popular and accomplished than any of the flaming losers who are fashionable today largely as a form of blackface for straights.

    • HonestAlbert

      Funny, you sound like you’d enjoy the taste of another guy firing off his big red personal signal flare.

      Nothing like a good old gay joke to show me the right of your intellectual might. When you come out of the closet we’ll all be here for you.

      No more white interest in black culture after 1991 or so, unlike with all-black sitcoms and movies before then.

      Except of course that it was the nineties that saw the rise of the greatest era of white interest in black culture including the wholesale adoption of black cultural memes like the mainstreaming of rap music, black family sitcoms (blaxploitation and Sanford and son are hardly bulwarks of racial harmony) like Cosby and Family Matters, far greater racial representation in mainstream media, etc.

      Sure the early nineties had some bad GenX wangst but I’m hardly holding the nineties up as any kind of enlightenment but it was better than the 80s. The 60s and 70s were better than the 80s and 90s and I stopped watching television and keeping up with music in the 00s so I can’t say.

      However 80s music was crap (hair band anyone and cloying pop anyone?), John Hughes was the worst purveyor of cutesy cloying gag-me-with-a-spoon pop cinema that ever disgraced celluloid and the mindless action movies were a disease that still haunts the screen.

      Straights were not into gay culture at all in the 80s. 70s, on the coasts, I’ll give you. But the 90s and 00s have seen a great deal more acceptance of gays. Freddy Mercury is a bad example because his on stage persona was not a gay one (remember that infamous line “bring on the girls!” ?) and his homosexuality was not a subject of wide discussion until the end of his life. I’ll give you that there is a great deal of gay minstrel going on in pop culture today from what i can see but, again, I’m not saying we are better off now than the 80s, just that the 80s themselves sucked and reading your blog posts one would think that the 80s were the golden age of human culture where gods walked with men.