Originally published in the Providence Journal.
Every year, March Madness gives us an underdog story and millions flock to a momentary allegiance with a college they could not locate on a map. This year we have Florida Gulf Coast.
So why do we love underdogs?
Well, no matter whether you are Republican or Democratic, work for Microsoft or Apple, or are a janitor or CEO, you most likely see yourself as somewhat of an underdog.
In America, especially compared to other countries, the underdog narrative is an honorable and respectable narrative. From the American patriots in 1776 to the George Mason Patriots in 2006, the Cinderella story, as it is specifically called in the NCAA tournament, has always been an attractive one.
So with underdogs you have 1) a narrative people like and 2) a narrative people see themselves in. Is it any wonder people want to cheer for underdogs? It’s like cheering for yourself.
These serve to energize us with the hope that people like ourselves can do anything. People like to believe that those above us aren’t that great after all, and that people like us are just as good, if not better than the people in power.
In fact, the narrative is so strong that Neeru Paharia, of the Harvard Business School, and colleagues named a psychological effect after it, simply “the underdog effect.” They found that companies gain goodwill from consumers when companies present themselves as a group that has overcame disadvantages through sheer determination. This effect was stronger for people who personally related with the narrative and stronger in cultures (e.g., America) where the narrative was more prevalent.
This narrative dominates American culture not only in sports but in all other popular media. From Luke Skywalker to Cinderella, Americans crave stories about underdogs. Even the more privileged characters in storylines, such as the elite James Bond or billionaire Tony Stark, end up in situations where they must overcome disadvantages through sheer determination.
Even politicians are forced to conform to the narrative, regardless of reality. This is a challenge that proved difficult for Mitt Romney and may have greatly have hurt his campaign.
The underdog narrative doesn’t only sell fiction, politics and sports, it also sells nonfiction books in my field of social science. The nearly unparalleled success of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” owes a lot of that success to the intuitive appeal of his “10,000 hours doctrine.” Gladwell concludes that if someone spends 10,000 hours at something they can become an expert, implying to readers (who don’t carefully read Gladwell’s other more nuanced chapters) that they can make it just by trying hard.
Hip Hop artist Macklemore of the “Thrift Shop” fame even opens his chart-topping first album with a song called “Ten Thousand Hours.” He directly references Gladwell’s name in the song, chants “Ten thousand hours, felt like thousands hands, they carry me,” and then raps “Take that system!”
Oddly enough, many political pundits on both sides of the spectrum have argued (mostly for political reasons) that such a dream is fading in America. But psychological research shows that when beliefs we value are threatened, we try to find ways to defend such beliefs and keep the belief alive. Believing that an underdog will win in Atlanta this year might be a good way to keep alive that wonderful American underdog dream.