why we root for the underdog

I enjoyed a Slate article by Daniel Engber about why we root for underdogs.  The article summarizes research in economics and psychology, and it touched on concepts that will be familiar to those of us with OR backgrounds.  I recommend reading the entire article.  My favorite part explains that researchers Jimmy Frazier and Eldon Snyder (of Bowling Green State University) hypothesize that the appeal of the underdog can be explained through expected utilities:

The sports spectator might be seen as a hedonistic animal, [Frazier and Snyder] argued, always out to maximize her excitement. So long as she’s not beholden to any one team for sentimental reasons—she’s a life-long Royals fan, perhaps—then she’ll choose her rooting interest based on a rational calculation of costs and benefits… In effect, Frazier and Snyder are saying that the expected value of a bet on an underdog—its average payoff in raw, chest-bumping excitement—will always be higher than the expected value of a bet on the favorite.

Another part of the article addresses how people tend to overestimate the probabilities of rare events (which I happened to discuss in my class yesterday).  An example of a rare event in sports is a longshot in horse racing.  This is in part explained by the availability heuristic, since we can easily recall memorable underdog victories.  As a result, longshots are overbet and favorites are underbet.  I’ll keep this in mind the next time I go to the track.

Link to the Slate article.

Are you a fan of underdogs?

One response to “why we root for the underdog

  • adamo

    “Are you a fan of underdogs?”

    Unless my favorite team is competing, I go with the underdog. It brings fun to watching the game, and I watch the game for fun. Otherwise, simply supporting the favorite is cynical and a low risk investment. Low risk investments are for making money, underdogs and betting for them are for having fun (and no regrets when the underdog does not win).

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