It’s well-documented that as a species we like to identify ourselves with winners and those we perceive as having the highest potential to win. This tendency seems to validate the statement that our brain is hard-wired for survival, an observation made by John Medina and others. But human behavior is rarely that straight forward. Our propensity to identify with winners is also flipped on its head by our fondness for underdogs. The less likely their chances of winning, the more we tend to root for them, creating an emotional connection with their efforts, just as though we are out there fighting the good fight with them. “The Underdog Effect” was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology in 2008. In this series of four studies, researchers found that subjects identified with and rooted for characters that were presented as underdogs, or unlikely winners, in the areas of sports, art and business. Even more interesting is that when subjects where shown images of different geometric shapes and told that some were struggling and some were non-struggling, they rooted for the underdog “struggling” shapes and identified with them in much the same way as they identified with individuals and groups of people in the earlier studies, appearing to humanize these inanimate shapes and construct meaningful connections with them.

We Root for People Who Are Like Us

In all of these studies, the researchers made it easy for the participants to find “self-relevance” – by placing the underdogs in circumstances that each participant could see happening to themselves. The consequences were also presented as high-stakes, tapping into our survival imperative. Your brain wants to keep you alive above all else; an attractive next-best option is to keep other members of the species alive. A sporting contest in which a group of lesser known and presumably less talented athletes beats far more accomplished, dominant teams through hard work and teamwork tells us that we can prevail even when the odds seem stacked against us. Psychology suggests that we like underdogs because we tend to see ourselves as underdogs, even if we are relatively well-off compared to others.

This self relevance is a critical piece to understanding the psychology of the Underdog Effect. Once the humanizing details were removed from the rooting choices, participants no longer identified with the underdogs, switching allegiances to the choices more likely to win.

Underdogs Give us a Chance to Address Perceived Unfairness in the World

Another study looked at the underdog effect from the aspect of fairness. If we perceive that one competitor has been given an unfair advantage, we tend to root for him or her, possibly to offset the unfairness. This study and others like it explains why “poor boy makes good” stories play so well in fiction, movies and politics. The psychologists conducting this study suggested that our ability to empathize with the person who was treated unfairly was a primary reason for rooting for the disadvantaged underdog.

Empathy and Oxytocin play a role

When we hit 2009, something interesting happens in the literature written about the underdog effect. We start to see neuroscientists covering the same ground as psychology, but in a different way. In a ground-breaking study, Paul Zak and Jorge Barraza studied the effect of the neurotransmitter oxytocin on our ability to feel empathy for another person. This study didn’t contradict the psychological studies cited previously. Psychology had already identified a predictable pattern in human behavior. However, it took neuroscience to isolate a chemical cause for that behavior. Our ability to root for the underdog requires us to empathize with them, to see ourselves in their story. And when an unexpected victory comes along, it’s emotionally uplifting to all of us who were carried along as the story unfolded. Zak’s work links our ability to relate to an underdog with a hard-wired preference for altruism in the brain, a trait which probably enabled our species to survive as a team when we wouldn’t have made it as a collection of “lone wolves.”

Emotional Contagion gets us on the “band wagon”

Emotional Contagion is a psychological term for “catching” an emotion from other people. In politics this is sometimes referred to as “getting on the bandwagon,” referring to a political ploy in the 1800s. Politicians would pay for a band to be wheeled around town in a brightly colored wagon with the candidate. Sometimes, opponents would jump into the wagon alongside the politician who had paid for the band, taking advantage of the popularity and visibility of the other person. In today’s world of social media, it is possible to get on the band wagon – that is, behind any cause, person, or team – in minutes, as the news travels like wildfire and we all get “infected” with the spirit of new cause. A recent study using 689,000 Facebook users demonstrated that emotions, such as a passionate rooting interest in a particular team, can be “caught” without any physical contact with other people, through our connection via social media. This study is important because it was previously thought that we needed to see the facial expressions of other people in order to trigger the same emotional response. Presumably we have all become so good at reading online social cues such as emojies and expressive punctuation that we no longer need a facial cue to recognize and respond to emotions online.

What does this all mean to the learning professional?

We all know that a great deal of learning is social and that we need to care about the subject in order to effectively attend to and encode the information into longer-term memory. A compelling underdog story can be used to emphasize the value of team work, inner belief in your own abilities, the power of hard work, persistence and consistency. Stories were one of our earliest ways of teaching and they still are one of the most effective. Remember this the next time you are watching a sporting event. If you find yourself rooting for the underdog, you’re not alone!