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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