The Eternal Appeal of the Underdog

By Dr Emily O'Leary

The Eternal Appeal of the Underdog
They seem to come from nowhere, beating the odds and the ‘big guys’ with just their innate talents. Even when they lose, we support the underdogs … but why?

In the story of David and Goliath, a young David overcomes his much stronger opponent, the giant Philistine warrior Goliath. While the story’s original purpose was to reveal David as the King of Israel, it has since become the ultimate tale of an underdog. Indeed, this “battle” scenario of a smaller man versus one with greater power has been playing out for centuries across multiple sporting, business and political arenas.

Consider Oprah Winfrey: she came from impoverished beginnings, experiencing abuse and adversity through her early life, but rising to become one of the most influential entertainers in the world. In the past Winfrey has commented on her meteoric rise, stating: “I don’t think of myself as a poor deprived ghetto girl who made good. I think of myself as somebody who, from an early age, knew I was responsible for myself, and I had to make good.” That statement captures everything we love about underdogs: their unwavering passion and perseverance. But do we really support the underdog, or do we just dislike the top dog?

Sense of justice

Most children are raised with stories of fictional and non-fictional heroes who have struggled (Peter Pan, Cinderella, Anne of Green Gables). From an early age, we’re conditioned to support those who need it most and so come to view underdogs as those who have been disadvantaged. Why do we feel the need to side with these characters? The answer may lie in our need for the world to seem fair and the desire we have to beat the odds.

It is easy to understand why we sympathise with someone or something that is being taken advantage of or being treated unfairly. The “psychology of the underdog” taps into our sense of fairness, justice and deservedness. In psychology, we often talk about cognitive distortions or “thinking errors”, which are irrational thought patterns that masquerade as real factual thoughts. One of the thinking errors occurring in the psychology of the underdog is called the “fallacy of fairness”: the perception that life should be fair and equal. When we see a “battle” like this being played out we tend to root for the underdog as it confirms that the world is just and pushes away that which makes us feel uncomfortable.

University of Richmond researchers George R Goethals and Scott Allison conducted a number of studies testing whether, and under what conditions, underdogs are supported as well as why they hold such an appeal. Their findings were published in the journal Advances in Experimental Social Psychology in 2012.

In a series of experiments, these researchers asked people to respond to certain scenarios where the individuals or teams were clear favourites or underdogs. For example, participants were given a list of five countries followed by their sporting medal counts (high to low). They were then asked to imagine two of the countries in a swimming contest. One group was asked to imagine the top-ranked team (Sweden) competing against the middle-ranked team (Belgium) and so on. Participants were asked how much they would like to see each country win the competition on a scale of 1 (not at all) to 9 (a great deal).

Regardless of the scenario presented, whether sporting or political, the results found that people tend to support underdogs in competitive situations. Goethals and Allison found this was true even for inanimate objects: test subjects championed the “underdogs” even when they only existed on computer screens. It’s not just the position of these individuals or groups that makes us want to support them – it’s also the biases we place on what we think an underdog should be. They are assumed to have certain positive qualities such as determination, an ability to overcome adversity, integrity and a thirst to never give up.

It is not their status that makes us cheer them on but more the characteristics we place on them – we see them as exceptional. We support the underdogs because they are relatable: if they can go from nothing to being someone or achieving something that matters, then so can we – the odds can be beaten.

Reactions and over-reactions

In therapy, when I am explaining the psychological model for why we sometimes think and react in certain ways, I’ll talk about the “hot spots”. This basically means our reactions, or over-reactions, to things you would not expect to have a reaction to.

For example, when you listen to a friend talk about a negative relationship or work incident, if you react really strongly to the story it may have triggered emotions for you in addition to feeling for your friend. Maybe you have been treated unfairly in a friendship or have certain thoughts on “how friendships should be”. The same occurs when we watch our favourite sports team: we want them to win because we have invested in them and it’s a shared victory.

The other issue is that we tend to have an innate dislike of those who hold all the power. One of the scariest things I hear in therapy nearly every day is people talking about a perceived or actual loss of control. If we reflect on our lives, there are many things we do not have control over because others seem to hold all the power – work, your mortgage and even the government. We have an innate drive that wants to challenge authority; we like the perception that authority or those in control can be challenged and beaten. The Davids of this world show us this can be done.

How to overcome your own Goliath

Every day we face our own challenges, sometimes on a small scale, sometimes large. When this occurs it’s important to evaluate whether it is in your best interests to “go out to bat” or save your energy and keep the battle for another day. If you feel torn about what to do, asking yourself the following questions can be helpful in making your decision:
Is confronting the challenge going to make things better or worse for you and your family? If it will make things worse in the short term, is it worth it in the long term to push forward?
Are you falling into the “myth of fairness”? Life should be fair and equal, but sometimes it isn’t. Is this particular battle important enough to you to push forward?
If your best friend came to you for advice about whether to challenge someone or something, what would you advise them to do in this situation?
Do a cost-benefit analysis – what comes out on top? These questions are designed to help you clarify when to challenge your Goliath, not to avoid all conflict. Indeed, challenging the status quo can be rewarding and good for the soul. We just need to make sure that when we do, our motivation for doing so is because it is in our best interests.



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