In another David and Goliath story, an unremarkable football club from an unremarkable city beats all the big teams – Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United, Spurs, and Manchester City- to win the Premier League, and most people are excited. Why do we love the underdog so much? What is the appeal or allure of the underdog? What is his advantage over the topdog?
The term “underdog” comes from dogfighting culture in the 19th century and originally was used to describe the combatant that wound up on the bottom, or the loser. The winner was the “topdog.”
Somewhere along the line, the word came to denote not the losing team or participant, but the side that is not favored to win. People back weaker teams not just because they like losers; they find some thrill, some virtues in underdog teams beating the odds. Without it, competitions become monotonous with easy predictability, which even makes the world boring.
Studies have also found that the unfair disadvantage of the underdog evokes emotional response in us that is powerful enough to extend to how we perceive their actual appearance, such that we find them more physically appealing as well.
There many more reasons we love the underdog, and it also has advantages over the topdog, but first the Leicester City against-all-odds story. If there is a low below underdog, Leicester City perhaps should have belonged there some months ago.
When he joined the team, Riyad Mahrez, their skinny-legged master-mind of many of their goals, who grew up in Paris suburbs, admitted he’d never even heard of Leicester City. “I thought they were a rugby club,” he said.
At the start of the season, bookmakers had Leicester at an incredible 5,000-1 to win the Premier League, which one writer describes as greater than the odds on Kim Kardashian becoming the next US president. Leicester’s best performance in their entire history was second place in 1928-29; in the Premier League era they’d never been higher than eighth. Last year, only a last-gasp escape from the relegation zone kept them in the top flight. They’d been in the relegation zone for six months, couldn’t stop conceding goals, and seemed certainties to be demoted.
Despite the wealth of the Club owner, the players were modestly assembled. The club’s entire wage bill is about $100m, roughly a quarter of the current Manchester United side. Their record signing is Andrej Kramarić, a low-quality Croatian striker currently on loan at Hoffenheim in Germany. Their squad was put together for about the same money as Kevin de Bruyne, Manchester City’s record $75m signing. Mahrez was picked up for about $750,000.
Interestingly, their top goal poacher and the country’s new Footballer of the Year, Jamie Vardy was sourced from the football woods. Four years ago, he was in Fleetwood Town in non-league soccer. Many teams had rejected him for being too skinny. Mahrez was playing for Le Havre reserves, and N’Golo Kanté was breaking through in a Boulogne side sliding towards France’s third division. Marc Albrighton, inexplicably, was deemed not good enough for Aston Villa, the Premier League’s team this season. Now, these players have become superstars.
The coach? Claudio Ranieri had questionable credentials. Appointing a humiliated coach to salvage a club was in itself absurd. The club had sacked manager Nigel Pearson, following a lacklustre performance and, crucially, a scandal involving his son – and first team player – James Pearson in Thailand. In his place, the club’s Thai owners hired Claudio Ranieri, a grandfather figure who had just overseen a four-game stint in charge of the Greek national team. That adventure in international football had ended in tears, with defeat to the Faroe Islands of all teams!
Advantages enjoyed by the underdog
Malcolm Gladwell is a mega-selling author, who combines graceful writing, his own reporting and academic research in his writing, is a respected authority on this subject. He says that through his research he found that “‘Goliath’ only wins 66 percent of the time — which is first of all astonishing — so 34 percent of time someone who is one-tenth the size of his opponent wins. That blew my mind.”
Gladwell also talks about how some of the most innovative people are underdogs who, usually through trying life circumstances, don’t struggle with the “over-prediction fear,” or the belief by most people that terrifying events will be worse than they really are. This mindset frees people to be more creative.
Flexibility: Underdogs who win refuse to compete by the same standards as their opponent; instead they use an entirely different strategy that exploits their stronger opponent’s weaknesses.
Nothing to lose: The underdog has nothing to lose and he is indifferent to people’s opinion. When you are powerful, you invite scrutiny, whereas when you are not powerful, you have the virtue of anonymity. And the scrutiny brings not just knowledge to your opponents, but censure to you.
Topdogs, on the other hand, have accumulated far more weight in terms of financial equity, responsibility, and risk. Underdogs have the liberty of playing the game as if you have nothing to lose, while the topdogs are busy debating the soundness of decisions in committees.
Victories Are sweeter: It is said that when you’re an underdog, you spend a lot of time failing. If you don’t fail, you expend lots of energy working on something and getting it noticed. Much more energy than a top dog would spend.
That means every victory for you is precious. The smallest step feels like a gigantic leap. Every advance in level is to be celebrated and should further excite you.
The license to be scrappy: Experts have observed that by their very nature, underdogs can’t believe in limitations or obstacles. If they did, they’d have lost before they started. Underdogs don’t need to play by the rules. In fact, they’re better off if they don’t since someone else has already played by those rules.
Underdog provocation: According to Gladwell, a principal part of the strategy of insurgence, whether we’re talking about the civil rights movement under Martin Luther King or a war, is to provoke that kind of excessive behaviour from Goliath. Rebels want Goliath to show the world his thoughtless, brutal side, and when people understand they are members of a Goliath culture, and we realize how often we let our enemies lure us into behaving really badly, that undermines our cause faster than anything else.
In one study, participants were more supportive of Israel in the conflict against Palestine when Israel was framed as an underdog. In follow-up studies, Josepth Vandello, associate professor of psychology at the University of South Florida, and colleagues explored the possible reasons why people are so attracted to underdogs.
Participants rated underdogs as higher in effort, and in turn, this was related to support for the underdog. In other words, people liked underdogs more because they thought they worked harder.
In a follow-up study, participants read a scenario about a team that was likely to lose. They described them as an “underdog” unless they had more financial resources than the opponent.
This suggests that merely being likely to lose is not enough to rally the troops in support of you or your team.
If we want to feel good about ourselves, it would seem easier to pick the favorites and back them wholeheartedly. But, curiously, people don’t tend to do this. Instead, they back the underdog.
In another study, 78 participants were randomly assigned to four groups and told about a person applying for a job who had either a fair or unfair advantage or disadvantage. As we might expect, the participants judged fairly advantaged candidates as more attractive than both unfairly advantaged applicants and fairly disadvantaged applicants. But they judged the underdog who was not personally responsible for failing (because their resume was lost by the secretary) as more attractive than those who succeeded unfairly (because their friend pressured the HR person) and those who bungled their application. All the groups were judging the same photograph.
Why we love them:
Victory of the underdog makes the world seem more just, or at least, it makes the world seem more hopeful, because, if the favourite always won, then there’s no point, right? There’d be no point in fighting. We’re instinctively thinking of future situations where we will be outmanned and we want to make sure we still have some kind of chance.
The God factor: Many people believe the Biblical saying that “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” The meek is seen as the humble, sometimes the underdog in a society that is generally loud.