Americans love an underdog
Americans love an underdog In this 2012 file photo, members of Lehigh's basketball team celebrate after winning an NCAA tournament second-round college basketball game against Duke (AP photo / Thinkstock)
Americans love an underdog
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It's the time of year for March Madness. And boy, do fans love the underdog. The science shows it. We can't resist pulling for the underdog teams. Especially when college basketball's national tournament rolls around.

About a dozen studies over the past 25 years have proved this fact. In one way or another, sports fans are inexorably drawn to the team with the odds stacked against it.

"It's the prominent narrative in sports," said Nadav Goldschmied of University of San Diego. He collaborated on one of the studies.

This runs counter to almost everything else we're wired to think. Scientific studies show people want to be associated with success. Our self-esteem grows when we're part of the "in" crowd. Walk one well-dressed job candidate through the door, then follow him up with a schlub. The studies show the majority of us favor the person who appears more attractive. That is almost regardless of their credentials.

But take that same dynamic into a sporting contest. For instance, the NCAA basketball tournament. Put a No. 14 seed against a No. 3. Our perceptions change.

One of Goldschmied's studies had people watch a basketball game. It was between two relatively unknown European teams. Before the game, they were asked to read different write-ups about the rivalry. One group was led to believe Team A had won the last 15 meetings. The other was led to believe Team B had won them all. Who they rooted for tilted based on who they considered the underdog.

In both cases, the team perceived as the underdog was viewed as the team giving more effort with less ability.

"That's just the story we tell ourselves," Goldschmied said. "We don't have to look too deep to figure it out."

But it's not always true.

Another study was conducted by an Ohio State professor. It showed that groups that felt they had more to lose actually tried harder. That basically tears apart the whole theory that the Lafayettes, Stephen A. Austins and Hamptons of the world put more on the line in this year's tournament than Kentucky, Kansas and Wisconsin.

In this study, college students were asked to perform a simple task. They were told a group of students from another specific college was doing the same work.

In the studies where one of the competing schools was listed appreciably higher in the U.S. News and World Report college rankings, the students from that school completed about 30 percent more of the task. In short, they worked harder than when they were competing against a college ranked better or equal to theirs.

Conclusion: "The motivation gains were there when students felt their group's superior status was threatened," said the study's co-author, Robert Lount. He's a professor at Ohio State's Fisher College of Business.

"We came at it from a completely different angle. Which was, we know we like to avoid losing more than we appreciate the joy of winning," Lount said. "If you think of your own team as favored, the team may work especially hard to make sure it comes out on top."

For all our love of underdogs, there are a few exceptions.

If a person has a specific rooting interest in a team, the tendency is to favor that team. Say it is the college they graduated from. In that case, it doesn't matter if the team isn't the underdog.

It helps explain another study. It found when big-conference teams are seeded better in games against mid-majors in the tournament, the point spread for the big-conference teams is inflated. It's usually by an average of about two points a game. The point spread is a figure determined before a game. It will say one team should win by a certain number of points. Of course, what really counts is the actual score of the game.

"You look at the power conferences. And you see their following is much stronger than those of the smaller schools," said the study's co-author, Jim Lackritz. He is a statistics expert at San Diego State. "People put their money where their hearts are and that drives the line up." Power conferences are the most familiar nationally. They include the ACC, Big Ten and SEC.

All of which could serve as good advice for people picking against point spreads.

The majority of us, though, will fill out brackets with no point spreads involved. Our picks are more based on feel and feeling. Many will pay scant attention to the fact that double-digit seeds have won a mere 41 of 172 games during the opening week less than 24 percent over the past five years. These numbers do not include 2015.

Seems like more, doesn't it?

Well, we're wired to remember it that way.

Quick quiz: Who won the fight at the end of the first "Rocky" movie?

Answer: Apollo Creed.

But in a study Goldschmied is currently conducting, he said a majority of those asked answered "Rocky."

"We will bend our memory," Goldschmied said. "We have forced our memory to change just to fit the underdog story. It's because of the underdog mode in all of us.

Critical thinking challenge: Why do people like to root for the underdog?

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Assigned 59 times

  • MayerS-Sua
    4/14/2015 - 10:05 p.m.

    People like to root for the underdogs because people like to root for the team that will likely lose the game. Another reason that the people root for the under dog's because people have a specific rooting interest in a team that is likely going to loss. Another reason that the people root for the under dog's because it makes the underdogs think that they can win the game. Another reason that the people root for the under dog's because if people root for the under dogs and the under dogs win then the croweds sported the under dogs and the croweds also sported the winning team. That is some of the reason's why people root for the under dogs.

  • StoneM-Sua
    4/14/2015 - 10:12 p.m.

    The reason why people root for the underdogs are from these reasons. First, people chooses to root for the underdogs in the European teams when the people pick who be the underdog. Next, the underdogs play a big role in basketball they had read different write-ups about the rivalry. Last, the underdogs are need because they play a big part in basketball. Those reasons are how the underdogs are used and needed in basketball.

  • HokettK-Sua
    4/14/2015 - 11:19 p.m.

    I think people root for the underdogs because they want the losers to win and the winners to lose. Also because the underdogs don't usually win games. In movies they always have it where the underdogs win, it makes them more exciting. The underdogs usually try harder then the winning team. People expect the winning team to win so it's better if the underdogs do. These are the reasons I think people root for the underdogs.

  • ManiegoC-Sua
    4/14/2015 - 11:48 p.m.

    Fans like the underdog because they win and shock people and make history. Another reason is that the games are good and many people watch the game. Last, is people don't lok up to them when they lose but when they win people root for them. Those are the reasons why people like the underdog.

  • HocogJ-Sua
    4/14/2015 - 11:54 p.m.

    They like to root for the underdog because if they bid a lot of money and the team would work extra hard to win. Another thing is that they work harder because they want to be at the top for the first time to see what it feels like. Also to prove people wrong so they can win at the end of the season or at the end of the game. Something else is if the other team is making them feel bad because the team that the other players are on are first so then they can stand up to them and try to win the game and maybe they will. One last thing is to never give up because if your the underdog you can be famous because you can win the game or bid and make a lot of people happy.

  • SinningK-Sua
    4/14/2015 - 11:55 p.m.

    Question of the Day: Why do people like to root for the underdog?

    My Answer: I think that people like to root for the underdog because it is the most likely to favor for the team. I think that because it said it in the 14th paragraph of the first sentence.

    "If a person has a specific rooting interest in a team, the tendency is to favor that team."
    I also think that because they are a good team, and there is a sentence that says at the very end, "It's because of the underdog mode in all of us."


    Finally, I think that people like to root for the underdogs because they put more on the line more than Kentucky, Kansas, and Wisconsin. That is why I think people like to root for the underdogs.

  • DosanjhN-Sua
    4/15/2015 - 12:09 a.m.

    People like to root for the underdog because that that team is in interest in that team that why.

  • ShecklenZ-Sua
    4/15/2015 - 12:13 a.m.

    People root for the underdog because they have faith that the people with the lower chance of winning, will work hard and win at the end.

    1. Our minds usually naturally push us to vote for the underdog.
    2. Studies say we feel want to be on the side of the winners
    3. We tend to make decisions based on feelings, not fact.

  • ManuelJ-Sua
    4/15/2015 - 01:32 a.m.

    People like to root for the under dog for their self-confidence to get high so they aren't afraid.

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