Why do we love an underdog?

Everyone loves the sporting underdog. Think Leicester City 2016, Rocky Balboa or Eddie the Eagle at the Winter Olympics in 1988. But why? And do they gain an advantage from their (unexpected) popularity?

Sport psychologist Gill Cook teamed up with journalist Julia Ravey for a podcast for the BBC’s Mental Muscle series, which looks at the science behind big sporting questions.

So, what does Gill think? Is it better to be the underdog? Wouldn’t most people want the comfort and security of being the favourite?

To put it into context the BBC talks to fans of Luton Town, the latest minnows to acquire the underdog tag, who hope to pull off ‘shock’ results against the likes of Arsenal and Manchester City.

Luton fans say there is no pressure to win and they will thrive on the challenge of overcoming the top dogs, and according to Gill, they are right, there are advantages of being unfancied; the underdog effect is real.

“When they newly promoted team comes up – they’re full of confidence because they’ve come from a season of winning. What’s more, the extra challenge of facing, say Liverpool, can boost motivation and this can boost testosterone in the short term – they quite literally have more energy, they think more clearly and they are more creative. It’s logical, if you aren’t as strong or technically gifted, your forced to find another way to win.  

“You also have to look at the top teams’ performance because everyone expects them to beat a ‘championship’ side and that builds its’ own pressures and they underperform. They might be too busy thinking about what people think of them and end up ‘choking’.

Dr Cook, who specialises in what makes athletes perform, says another advantage is freedom. “Underdogs are effectively in a win-win situation – no-one expects you to win, so if you do win, you’ll get lots of plaudits and if you don’t win, well it doesn’t matter anyway. The underdog is kind of freed from those shackles.

So why do we root for the underdog?

People love cultural stories, she says. David and Goliath, the Rocky Films, for example.

“The story of the underdog hero is ingrained in us very early age, we’ve all been a small child, we can all think of a schoolmate or colleague who is more gifted than us. We find it very easy to identify with the underdog more than the elite. We think we’re more like them. So, if the underdog wins, by extension, we win.

It's also more exciting, especially for the neutral to want the unfavoured person to win.

“There’s also deservedness; we like people who work hard; we see it as a moral virtue. So, when people put effort in, we think they deserve something more.

“And there’s an element of shadenfreude – we don’t necessarily want the underdog to win, we want the top dog to lose.”

Luton v Manchester City, anyone??


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