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, again and again, that we can't resist pulling for the underdog teams when college basketball's national tournament rolls around.

About a dozen studies over the past 25 years have shown, in one way or another, that 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, who collaborated on one of the studies.

This penchant runs counter to almost everything else we're wired to think. Scientific studies show people want to be associated with success and that 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 and the studies show the majority of us favor the person who appears more attractive, almost regardless of their credentials.

But take that same dynamic into a sporting contest, where it's a scraggly No. 14 seed against a polished No. 3 and the perceptions change.

One of Goldschmied's studies had people watch a basketball game between two relatively unknown European teams after reading 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 all those games. 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."

One minor detail: It's not always true.

Another study conducted by an Ohio State professor 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 and 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 of 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 say the college they graduated from they tend to favor that team, even if the team isn't the underdog.

It helps explain a study that found when big-conference teams are seeded better in games against mid-majors in the tournament, the Vegas point spread for the big-conference teams is inflated by an average of about two points a 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, a statistics expert at San Diego State. "People put their money where their hearts are and that drives the line up."

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

The majority of us though, will fill out brackets no point spreads involved 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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COMMENTS (18)
  • NW2000Bball
    3/26/2015 - 08:41 a.m.

    I think people go for the underdog because they want the worst team to take it all. Yeah there are a lot of good teams in March Madness but for the underdog to win, it would be a great shock. Also for the people who are going for the underdog team i think that if that teams is on a winning streak, beating the best teams, it has more of a hype to the fans of March Madness.

  • Tywayne
    3/26/2015 - 08:43 a.m.

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

  • LBQuran-Cas
    3/26/2015 - 10:28 a.m.

    I love when underdogs win, its them beating the odds. Its more exciting when the underdogs win because no one expects them to win. Especially when they get a upset against the best ranked team, its show that any good team can be beaten on any given day.

  • TehyaWhite-Ste
    3/26/2015 - 12:53 p.m.

    I think that people like to root for the underdog because if they win it gives them a sense of hope. It's one of those things that's like "HA! Not everything is predictable!"

  • lm2000food
    3/26/2015 - 01:11 p.m.

    people root for the underdog because the underdog is least expected to win the tournment . and people do not think that they are going to win

  • tylerr-Che
    3/26/2015 - 01:51 p.m.

    the people that work hard and don't get recognition for the underdog is enjoying to watch and to be one is even greater to be.

  • tateo-And
    3/26/2015 - 03:38 p.m.

    People like to root for the underdog because they are not expected to win. When Lehigh beat Duke in 2012 the world was shocked. To this day I always root for the underdog because of what happened that day.

  • ShaniaWentz-Ste
    3/26/2015 - 10:07 p.m.

    I honestly didn't know what the March Madness tournament was until this year when one of my friends showed me the live feed. I votes for the first team I saw: Notre Dame. It's at the final four now,and I'm still voting for them. I'm not sure that the underdog rule applies for every other person, but it does not apply to me.

  • Js2001ege
    3/27/2015 - 08:50 a.m.

    People like underdogs because they want to see a good game also because they like seeing good games happen and so people can stop bandwagonning

  • DD00BASEBALL
    3/27/2015 - 01:01 p.m.

    people like to root for an underdog bc they are least expected to win. also, the team that the underdog could be playing could be like a dominant team like Duke.

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