Duke Losing and the Joy of Underdogs

March 24, 2014 BY danariely


I am a scientist and occasional season ticket holder at Duke. So on Friday, I was understandably sad with the Duke loss. But as I watched the rest of America celebrate on Twitter, I felt no anger toward everyone else’s joy. Because everyone else got to experience the same joy that I long to experience each time I watch a top seed (that isn’t Duke) playing a low seed. Like so many, I want to see the underdog win.

Because no matter whether you’re a punk or prep, a janitor or CEO, or work at Mercer or even Duke, at times you feel like an underdog. Maybe you’ve been given the lowest step on the economic ladder, maybe you’re a struggling artist, or maybe you’re a scientist battling to modernize research. At the end of the day, so many of us feel like underdogs and we want nothing more than to see another underdog succeed.

Luckily for us, we can count on the annual March Madness to provide a few underdog success stories. And then millions of us can flock to a momentary allegiance with a college we have to use Google Maps to locate. In the past it has been George Mason, Virginia Commonwealth University, and Butler, and this year we’ve momentarily been given quite a few more.

In America, especially compared to other countries, the underdog narrative is an honorable and relatable narrative. From the American patriots in 1776 to the George Mason Patriots in 2006, the story has always been part of this country’s culture.

From March Madness to Luke Skywalker, we Americans crave more and more stories about underdogs. We demand it in every fictional and nonfictional story. Even the more privileged characters in popular storylines, such as the elite James Bond or billionaire Tony Stark must at sometime become outcast underdogs. If they didn’t we wouldn’t relate to them. The narrative is so much a part of our culture that politicians are forced to conform to the underdog narrative, even if they really don’t fit it.

In fact, the narrative is so strong that Neeru Paharia of Georgetown University and colleagues named a psychological effect after it, simply naming it “The Underdog Effect.” They found that groups (e.g. companies or maybe even basketball teams) can gain goodwill from others when they present themselves as underdogs. This effect was stronger for people who personally related with the narrative and stronger in cultures where the narrative was more prevalent (e.g. America).

More than ever, today we need these stories. Many political pundits on both sides of the spectrum have argued that the hope of the American underdog dream is fading. For this reason we are desperate to keep this important hope alive. Believing that an underdog will win in Texas this year might be a good way to keep the flame of that hope burning.

If only for my sake, that hope didn’t require a Duke loss. Oh well. Time for me to start rooting for a school I know nothing about. I need to leave you all now. I’ve got some Google mapping to do.

~Troy Campbell~