Root for the Underdog, But Buy the Favorites

(Bloomberg View) -- I’ll be rooting for the Philadelphia Eagles this weekend, and if you don’t have any idea what I’m talking about, you can stop reading now. If you’re a New England Patriots fan, don’t get mad, because your guys are of course going to win the thing, as usual. I’m fine with that. Great team, great coach, great quarterback, etc. (Plus, best conditioning in football.) But on Super Bowl night, I’m going to root for Philadelphia because it’s long been my habit in sports to support the underdog.

This practice, which I have discussed before in this space, likely goes back to my childhood, much of which was spent in Washington, among teams that were perennial also-rans. Nobody ever thought that the Washington Senators, say, would be a threat to win the pennant. Not once in all the years my family lived in Washington did the Senators even finish with a winning record. One learned early to love losers.

But not all of my preference for the underdog stems from the happenstances of my youth. Although social scientists who study sports tell us that we love to be associated with winners (as if we didn’t know that), they also tell us that we are attracted to underdogs because we see them as having to work much harder than favorites to stay on the field. Underdogs, as I have noted before in this space, are considered scrappy. Although we admire success, we also love scrappers. In laboratory experiments, people without a rooting interest in a particular contest are significantly more likely to favor the underdog.

The same behavior holds in other contexts. In one study, students were shown a painting. Some were told that the painting was by a new and unknown artist. Others were told that it was by a well-established artist. The students told that the painting had been done by (in effect) an underdog were significantly more likely to say that they wished the artist future success.

The same paper reported a study involving abstract geometric shapes. The students viewed images of circles rolling along the screen confronted with an obstacle. One circle got over the obstacle with ease; the other struggled. The students were much more likely to sympathize with and to root for the circle that was having trouble.

To be sure, our preference for underdogs is hardly news. It’s not hard to see why. It’s not sympathy; it’s empathy. We all have our struggles. Early in 1918 -- that is, almost exactly a century ago -- the syndicated columnist George Matthew Adams made the point explicitly. “We applaud the under-dog,” he wrote, “because we so often have been the under-dog.”

And yet we do not apply this approach to every aspect of our lives. Consider our consumption habits. When buying mobile phones or soft drinks, we tend to stick to the brands we know. We’re rarely attracted by the upstarts.  One theory of how branding works (there are several) holds that a trademark is a relatively inexpensive conveyor of information. When we choose a brand we know, our “search costs” -- figuring out quality and so forth -- are relatively low. An unknown brand may be superior in the aspects that matter to us, but the cost of discovering this information is relatively high. That distinction is what allows the established brand to charge a higher price.

The same is true in politics. Rarely nowadays do we hear of a voter explaining how he cast his ballot by saying, “Well, I just like underdogs.” True, there is a long tradition in political science holding that voters are attracted to underdogs, particularly when they believe that candidate has no chance of winning (that is, that a vote for the underdog will make no difference). But the supposed underdog effect has only weak empirical support, and largely predates the hardening of partisan lines that is a signal feature of contemporary outcomes. The swing voters often make a difference, but most voters seem to choose early whom to support, and do not waver.

Intuitively, it seems correct that we might root for the underdog in a sporting contest (or root for the circle that is struggling up the hill) but behave differently when it comes to choosing a brand to buy or a political candidate to support. What explains the distinction? Probably the cost of error.

Suppose that the team you’re rooting for loses the Super Bowl. Your psychic cost is likely to be low. Sure, you’re upset for a while, but whatever disappointment you feel is outweighed by the pleasure you have had from the rooting itself -- in particular, from rooting as part of a large audience, the other members of whom you likely will never meet.

It’s true that fans of the winner are happier than fans of the loser. But fans of the loser have the additional satisfaction of having rooted for the side that they believe to be scrappier and therefore in some sense more deserving. If the pleasure of rooting for the side you consider more deserving outweighs the disappointment you will feel in the event of defeat,  then it’s perfectly rational to root for a team that is considered likely to lose.

But in purchasing products or casting votes, we calculate the risks differently. The cost we suffer from purchasing a bad mobile phone is likely to be high -- much too high to allow us to take a chance on the unknown brand.  In elections, where any single vote is unlikely to sway the outcome, the satisfaction we take must derive largely from the sense of belonging that comes from knowing we voted the “right” way. This satisfaction evidently outweighs whatever joy we might derive from voting for the underdog.

Which brings us back to the Super Bowl. The latest polling tells us that viewers favor the Eagles over the Patriots by 43 percent to 18 percent.  To which I say: Those of us in that pro-Philadelphia plurality had best take our satisfaction from the fun of rooting. Because the Patriots are going to win.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”

  1. Another study suggests that job applicants who are seen as unfairly disadvantaged (described by the study’s authors as the “underdogs”) are judged by interviewers as more physically attractive than those who are seen as unfairly advantaged. Social scientists have long been interested in the relation between a supposedly natural sympathy for underdogs on the one hand and, on the other, identification with racial or ethnic minorities who face prejudice.

  2. In some circumstances, upstart brands may be able to use stories of what they have overcome to gain more customers

  3. Suicide rates are lower on Sundays when a Super Bowl is played than on other Sundays. Psychologists attribute this interesting fact to the notion that being part of a group that is rooting together (apparently even when other rooters are not physically present) satisfies a need to belong that underlies many suicides.

  4. Discounted by the possibility of victory, of course.

  5. The cheaper the product, the smaller the cost if we’re wrong, and the more likely we are to try the unknown brand. (At least in theory. I’ve seen people take on enormous costs in time to drive around looking for a store that stocks their favorite soft drink.)

  6. The same polling tells us that half the viewers percent) consider the most interesting part of the game to be the commercials. So underdog brands should see note above.

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