There have been many situations in the past where no-name teams end up coming out of nowhere to defeat the team that is expected to win with ease.  It seems that everyone loves to see a “Cinderella Story” or a “David versus Goliath” situation, but why is this?  If people tend to take pleasure in winning competitions, why would we chose the participant expected to lose?  Studies have consistently proven that fans cheering for the winning team report higher self-esteem.  In addition to increased self-esteem, these winning fans predict their own success in the future more frequently (Hirt, E.R., Zillmann, D., Erickson, G.A., Kennedy, C., 1992).  This is often referred to as “basking in reflected glory”.  It surprises me that there is such definitive evidence showing that supporting winners makes fans feel like winners, but I am also guilty of these allegiance tendencies.

On the other end of the study showing that people enjoy being associated with winning is the premise of this blog post–people prefer cheering for underdogs.  The Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin conducted a randomized survey on the general public, asking which team they would prefer to see win in an Olympic swimming setting where one team is at a clear advantage prior to the event.  Almost all 71 survey participants said that they would prefer to see the lower-ranked team defeat the higher-ranked team (Vandello, J.A., Goldschmied, N.P., & Richards, D.A., 2007).  This tendency was proven without predisposed bias towards team loyalty, essentially meaning theoretical teams were used to avoid preexisting devotion to any real team that the conflict.  In additional research, there is definitive evidence showing that people find the individual who happens to be an underdog “more attractive” in the eyes of the audience (Michniewicz, K.S. & Vandello, J.A., 2013).

On the surface, analyzing the relationship between these two ways of thinking–enjoying winning and preferring underdogs–seems completely backwards and counter-productive.  If this correlation is not simply taken at face value, however, it begins to make more sense.  One of the big reasons why underdogs are cheered for is because they require more effort for success, therefore typically give more effort.  This trait resonates with fans more than simply putting up uncontested victories.  If the victory was earned by effort, then it feels more deserved and high-quality.  Athletes or teams who are ranked higher are expected to have more abilities

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and skills, but the general belief by the participants was that those with a smaller skill sets were inclined to try harder (Vandello et al., 2007).  This reasoning may explain the public’s fascination with athletes who are expected to lose, but fight in a valiant effort to maintain their hopes of victory.  Although I cannot speak to the work ethic of elite professional athletes, I am certain there are plenty high-caliber professionals who continue the strive to get better everyday.  This level of elite play likely plays a big role in them getting to the highest level of their sport that the world has to offer, while getting paid ridiculous amounts of money to do it.  With these incentives of fortune and fame, professional athletes should theoretically have talent and effort at all times.  These traits and this belief may be difficult to measure, as well as not entirely true.  The has not been a proven “golden rule” to finding the most athletically gifted athlete who also gives incredible effort at all times.

One of the more interesting developments in my eyes when it comes to underdogs is that of the Chicago Cubs.  The Cubs have not won a World Series in over 100 years, however they perennially have one of the largest followings in all of Major League Baseball.  Despite being mediocre for so long, fans remain loyal and never lose faith in their consistently back-of-the-pack team.  The saying that all Cubs fan learn from a young age is “Next year is our year!”.  This season must have been a refreshing change of pace for Cubs fans, with the Cubs having their best season in recent history.  This young, exciting Cubs team finished third in the MLB for the regular season, and advanced deep into the National League Championship Series (the semi-finals of the playoffs).  After conducting a literature review about underdogs, one thing that interests me about the Cubs’ story line is what defines their status as an underdog.  Although this team has not won a championship in over 100 years still, they are one of the clear rising teams in the league that appears to be here to stay.  Following an impressive showing in the regular season and playoffs, the Cubs are statistically ranked by Las Vegas odds as the favorite to win the 2016 World Series.  This ranking puts them at the exact opposite of the underdog persona they have worn for many long seasons.  Will this decrease their novelty and cause them to lose fans who prefer cheering for underdogs or will they continue to be defined by their lack of a current championship?  How will the players adjust to having higher expectations on them than they have ever had before?  Are the Cubs going to shake their nickname of “The Lovable Losers” or has that become their destiny?

References

Hirt, E.R., Zillmann, D., Erickson, G.A., Kennedy, C. (1992).  Costs and benefits of allegiance: changes in fans’ self-ascribed competencies after team victory versus defeat. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63(5), 724-738. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.63.5.724

Michniewicz, K.S., Vandello, J.A. (2013).  The attractive underdog: when disadvantage bolsters attractiveness.  Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 30(7), 942-952. doi: 10.1177/0265407513477629

Vandello, J.A., Goldschmied, N.P., & Richards, D.A. (2007).  The appeal of the underdog. Personality and Social Psychological Bulletin, 33(12), 1603-1616. doi: 10.1177/014616720730748

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