Sport and Exercise

The underdog effect

Ciaran O’Keeffe on the appeal, and how things change.

02 September 2019

Zach Johnson’s beaten-up camper van sat in the car park. Since the beginning, it had taken him from one minor golfing tournament to the next, with barely a whisper of victory. Zach had felt that even this van, his constant companion, was losing faith. Even Zach’s parents discouraged his chosen path, hoping he’d take the more secure route of accountancy. But golf was his passion and he still hoped to hit the big-time… one day…

The US Masters, April 2007, and Zach Johnson was the outsider bookies refused to take bets on. Only one bookie had him at 100-1 odds simply out of ‘sympathy’. Amongst his opponents was Tiger Woods, a behemoth of a golfer whose record-breaking trail of victories left his opponents foundering. Tiger was the highest paid professional golfer in 2006, earning over $100 million from winnings and endorsements. He was four times Masters’ champion and had had more wins on the PGA Tour than any other active golfer. As the world watched for Tiger to dominate Zach and his opponents, walking away with yet another trophy, a classic underdog tale played out.

Even if, like me, you are not a golfing fan, are you rooting for Zach? Is there something appealing about his underdog status that wins over your support? When opponents clash, the battle against insurmountable odds fascinates us and provokes unwavering emotional support. And indeed the crowds at Augusta, Georgia, rallied behind Zach as he began to creep onto the leader board. After his dramatic win, headlines everywhere described Zach as the diminutive David in a contemporary battle against Goliath battle, a true underdog tale of triumph.

Zach had only turned professional in 1998 and was the first person outside the top 50 Official World Golf Ranking to win the Masters tournament. But what if I now tell you that in 2003, Zach topped the money list on the Nationwide Tour with then record earnings of $494,882? That he won his first PGA Tour event at the BellSouth Classic three years previously and, prior to the 2007 Masters, had won 12 other tournaments? What has changed? Is he still an ‘underdog’?

Unveiling in front of us

The ‘underdog’ in competition is the one who is expected to lose. Just over a decade ago, leading names in underdog research reported on a series of studies which explored the appeal of the underdog. Their opening sentence read: ‘When people observe competitions, they are often drawn to figures that are seen as disadvantaged or unlikely to prevail’ (Vandello et al., 2007, p.1603).

The context for consideration of the underdog is often sport. In 2012, Professor John Brewer, Professor of Applied Sports at Bucks New University, was Chair of the British Handball Association. He talks here about the appeal of one of the underdogs in the Olympics:
As host nation GB were able to send men’s and women’s handball teams to the London Olympics, but as huge underdogs since handball is not seen as a mass participation sport in the country. It was a great example of what could be achieved with determination, coaching and talent. Whilst the GB teams did not win, they did inspire many of the thousands who came to watch, and as a result handball is now one of the fastest growing sports in British Schools.

Associate Professor Nadav Goldschmied is based at Department of Psychological Sciences, University of San Diego, where he researches the psychology of inequality, disadvantage, and competitive asymmetries. Having been enthralled by his MA thesis and follow-up article on the appeal of the underdog, I was fortunate enough to interview him. He contemplated the reasons for the popularity of underdogs in sport: ‘I think it’s because in sport it’s unveiling in front of us. We see the competition, we see the emotions… so it’s the most transparent, I guess, of all.’

The underdog effect can be demonstrated, however, in many other domains – in politics, business, indeed any competitive context. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, misfits, and the art of battling giants, regales the reader with a number of unusual underdog challenges and triumphs: dyslexics becoming highly successful entrepreneurs; an individual living in extreme poverty during the Depression-era who rose to become a legendary oncologist; an undersized novice girls’ basketball team succeeding through exploitation of opponents’ conventional tactics. The lessons are that people are able to take inspiration from these figures (and many others) explained by the ‘theory of desirable difficulties’ (which originates with the psychologist, Robert Bjork, in 1988). This theory posits that successful individuals need to have those disadvantages because the struggle to succeed against seemingly insurmountable odds is important for growth. This explains the importance for underdog status, but it does not account for why underdogs hold such a favourable appeal.

Nadav Goldschmied has looked at a number of possible explanations. One of his many studies focused on the characteristics needed for people to regard a competitor as an underdog. He explains: ‘In essence, we had two teams and we either mentioned their expectations to prevail in the upcoming competition or we mentioned what the resources were without mentioning any expectations… and then we had two conditions where expectation and resources were congruent. In the incongruent condition the underdog based on expectation had much more resources or money than the topdog. There was support for the underdog across the conditions except that last one… where the underdog has a lot of resources available to it, the topdog was supported. And we concluded, indirectly, that there are possibly justice or fairness concerns that translate into underdog support.’

It is all relative, however. Even if an apparent underdog has a lot of resources available to it, they will still be regarded as an underdog if the resourcing (or perceived financial investment) is perceived to be significantly less than its competitor. It is, perhaps, as Nadav said, that perceived inequality is regarded as unfair and by supporting the underdog it is a way to restore that sense of fairness – almost a form of compensatory justice (Vandello et al., 2007). There are also a number of social preference models that point to people’s aversion to such inequalities which suggest that people become less satisfied with results as the differences between competitors’ outcomes increase (e.g. Fehr & Schmidt, 1999; Messick, 1995).

Professor John Brewer again, but this time in role a few years after the London Olympics:
In 2014 I was chair of British Ski and Snowboard. With the exception of Scotland, GB is somewhat lacking in both snow and mountains, so as a nation we are often seen as snowsports underdogs. But with targeted investment in individuals and disciplines of the sport where we could excel, GB won its first ever Olympic medal on snow at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. This unexpected success has resulted in further funding and awareness of the snowsports, and subsequently GB won two more Olympic medals at the 2018 winter Olympics in South Korea, showing that underdogs really can do well.

The GB team, then, gained support as underdogs in the 2014 Winter Olympics given the lack of success and medals leading up to that point, and the perceived lack of resources. This, may be exacerbated by the history of underdogs in the sport (for example, Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards in the 1988 Olympics). Having won more medals in the 2018 Winter Olympics, however, will the GB Team still be regarded as underdogs?

Nadav recounts a study that neatly illustrates this point: ‘There is one study that I saw that was asking about the topdog and underdog in a playoff series in sports, and you could see that people were asked and there was a strong support for the underdog… they asked again after three games, they were told the underdog won those three games so what do you think now? People shifted to the team that was the topdog before and has now become the underdog. So I definitely think there is a temporal sequence here that needs to be taken into account.’

Underdogs as heroes

More recent research has tackled this memory and changing status aspect, and commented on how inspirational underdog stories capture our attention. If anything such stories should, as Nadav and his colleagues have stated, ‘influence probability estimates for future underdog success’ (Goldschmied & Vandello, 2012, p.39). It would lead to an optimism bias since people would remember the underdog success stories and ignore the base-rate information of losing underdogs (therefore creating an availability heuristic as shown by Tversky and Kahneman in other contexts). If anything, underdogs would be perceived as heroes and winners. It is no surprise, therefore, to find Nadav’s most recent writings on the subject are titled ‘Underdogs as Heroes’.

Nadav is keen to point out the real world implications of underdog identity. ‘The notion of being perceived as an underdog can be manipulated – you can see that being done time and time again in politics. If you search on the internet, for the election for the presidency, put the name of a candidate and the term underdog and I would say that more than half of them would say at some point “I am the underdog in the race”. Barack Obama said “I am an underdog. With my name I have to be the underdog”. People know the magical connotation that an underdog has in terms of support, and they use it.’

How recollections are shaped

We are enthralled with underdog fights, what Goldschmied lovingly now calls ‘a special sub-category of heroes’. They permeate sport and politics, but contemporary cultures have also embraced our fascination and support for underdogs in their own modern form of storytelling. For example, reality television emphasises the underdog qualities of individuals as we witness their exploits in ever-more complex, and sometimes humiliating, competitions. Talent shows invite the viewer to become engrossed in an emotional life story of challenges and seemingly under-resourced failures, only to then marvel at the flawless performance and rapturous applause.

We are also drawn to underdogs in fiction where, sometimes, the nuanced narratives are forgotten as we remember only a stereotypical underdog story. For example, Goldschmied and his colleagues are now finding that the underdog story framework is now so engrained in our culture and psyche that we can often forget outcomes that are inconsistent with our perception of what should happen when an underdog competes. The classic Rocky I film, for example, has Rocky Balboa pitched throughout the whole film as an underdog yet he loses the final fight with Apollo Creed. Goldschmied and colleagues are finding that less than half of participants correctly recall this actual final fight, yet they accurately remember other stereotypical underdog stories.

Effectively, this takes underdog research into a hitherto unconnected area of psychology: how ‘recollections can be shaped by a rather distal social schema’ (Goldschmied et al., 2017, p.8). The implications are far-reaching with, for example, the potential to examine whether participants are similarly influenced into misremembering inconsistent outcomes in non-fiction, historical events – in sport, war and, highly pertinently, politics.

Ciarán O’Keeffe is Associate Head of School of Human & Social Sciences at Buckinghamshire New University
[email protected]

This article is part of the 'Under…' special issue.

Key sources
Allison, S.T. & Goethals, G.R. (2011). Heroes: What they do and why we need them. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Bjork, R.A. (1988). Retrieval practice and the maintenance of knowledge. In M.M. Gruneberg & P. E. Morris (eds), Practical aspects of memory (Vol. 1, pp. 396–410). New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Fehr, E. & Schmidt, K.M. (1999). A theory of fairness, competition and cooperation. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 114, 817-868.
Gladwell, M. (2013). David and Goliath: Underdogs, misfits, and the art of battling giants. New York: Little Brown & Co.
Goldschmied, N. & Vandello, J.A. (2012). The future is bright: The underdog label, availability, and optimism. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 34, 34–43.
Goldschmied, N., Ruiz, J. & Olagaray, S. (2017). The underdog narrative in movies. Heroism Science, 2(1), 1-11.
Messick, D.M. (1995). Equality, fairness and social conflict. Social Justice Research, 8, 153-173.
Vandello, J.A., Goldschmied, N. & Richards, D.A.R. (2007). The appeal of the underdog. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33, 1603–1616.