Why we Love an Underdog

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I was sat on the couch today watching the tennis match between Serena Williams and Wang Qiang and I couldn’t help but notice how quickly I found myself routing from Wang. It was one of the closest women’s matches I have ever watched, with Wang looking like she was going to take the match at several points just to have Serena bring it back from the brink and make a surging comeback.

In the end it was Wang Qiang that took out the match 6-4 6-7 7-5. But it got me wondering, why do we route for underdogs over the favourites, and why we sometimes class favourites as underdogs.

What is it About Underdogs

A few different scientific studies have come out showing that we as humans have a predisposition towards an underdog. In one study, people who read descriptions of two fictional basketball teams playing each other in a seven-game series rooted for the team described as the underdog 88.1 percent of the time. However in reality the pull is strong enough for some that people often find themselves switching allegiances based entirely on one team being an underdog.

One theory, put forth is that our love for the underdog is basically an expression of schadenfreude — pleasure we experience due to the misfortune of others. We resent powerhouse teams that win every year, the thinking goes, so we root for them to lose. We crave variety in our viewing habits and one there is a team or an individual continuously dominating that space we come to despise that team or individual.

The Limits of an Underdog

A lot of studies out there show that our love for the underdogs becomes less and less prominent the more that is put on the line. For instance, in a 8th final tennis match between the previous world number one and a career player from china you may be more inclined to route for the player who is still trying to make a name for themselves. But whilst watching the Olympics for instance, people will tend to route for their own countries athletes no matter what.

A similar paradox can be found in lesser known sports. Underdogs rely on the fact that they are known as underdogs to gain support. In sports that are less well known or don’t receive as much coverage it is much harder for an individual to make a decision on who to barrack for and usually resort to supporting the favourite.

So it would seem underdogs are an exciting anomoly all around the world. Combining the best in humanity to support those who have the larger hill to climb, and at the end of the day, keeping not just sport but any competitive environment exciting.

Whats your best underdog story? Let me know in the comments.

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