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.
Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week — and if you have any questions for me, just email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.
I am an avid football fan. When the team I am supporting is leading by, say, seven points, it doesn’t seem like a lot (we are leading by JUST one touchdown). On the other hand, when we are trailing by seven points, it seems like a lot (we are trailing by ONE touchdown). The same thing happens with runs in baseball and points in basketball. As a result, I’m always nervous while watching close games! Why do I feel this way? Is it just me?
I must admit that I don’t follow sports, but as luck would have it, I recently had a chat with Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks. We talked about various links between behavioral science and basketball, including the idea of loss aversion. Loss aversion means that our emotional reaction to a loss is about twice as intense as our joy at a comparable gain: Finding $100 feels pretty good, whereas losing $100 is absolutely miserable.
When your team is ahead, you think that the game is yours, so you largely focus on dreading that it might be taken away from you. On the other hand, when you are behind, all you can do is look forward to a positive change in the lead.
As this suggests, we might benefit in other areas of life, beyond sports, by adopting the perspective of being behind and looking for the upside.
Several years ago I gave my 90-year-old mother $5,000 to pay off the bank loan for her 2007 Honda Civic. She recently decided she didn’t want to drive anymore and would sell the car, for which she should receive $6,000 to $8,000. She had originally planned to give the car to my nephew (her grandson), but since he can’t afford the upkeep, she was going to sell the car and give him the proceeds. My finances have improved significantly since the time I gave her the $5,000, but she also offered to give me back $5,000 from the sale, which would leave my nephew with very little money. What should I do?
When we face such questions, we usually engage in what is called a cross-personal utility comparison. We ask ourselves how much we would benefit from this amount of money and compare this to how much the other person (your nephew, in this case) would benefit. When we carry out this comparison we naturally have a somewhat egocentric view of the world, which means that we usually over-weigh our own benefits and under-weigh the benefits of the other person.
However, recent research by Elizabeth Dunn and Mike Norton (their forthcoming book is called “Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending”) shows that giving money away has tremendous benefits for the giver. In their studies, whether people buy a cup of coffee for a friend or give up their yearly bonus to help a nonprofit, the givers experience happiness beyond their expectations, and it remains high for longer than they anticipate.
In your case, the giving would be particularly powerful because both you and your mother are involved. You would feel happiness because you facilitated the gift, your mother would feel happy because she is helping her grandson, and you would feel further happiness for making your mother feel good. With all of this good feeling around, is there any doubt that you should help your nephew?
I just paid for yoga classes for the next six months, but the studio mistakenly credited me for a year. They have made many past billing errors in their favor. Should I correct the mistake or just see it as the universe making things more even?
Of course, it is the world restoring karma—but why did it take so long?
Surowiecki starts by describing a very important observation made by Thomas Schelling about the N.H.L:
“At the time, players were allowed, but not required, to wear helmets, and most players chose to go helmet-less, despite the risk of severe head trauma. But when they were asked in secret ballots most players also said that the league should require them to wear helmets. The reason for this conflict, Schelling explained, was that not wearing a helmet conferred a slight advantage on the ice; crucially, it gave the player better peripheral vision, and it also made him look fearless. The players wanted to have their heads protected, but as individuals they couldn’t afford to jeopardize their effectiveness on the ice. Making helmets compulsory eliminated the dilemma: the players could protect their heads without suffering a competitive disadvantage. Without the rule, the players’ individually rational decisions added up to a collectively irrational result. With the rule, the outcome was closer to what players really wanted.”
In the rest of the article, Surowiecki tries to make the case that we all feel the same about cars with higher fuel-economy — and that we want to be forced into this situation.
I am not sure I agree. There are clearly situations where we want to be forced into a better social equilibrium (for example, I want other people to drive safer), but this strikes me more as a situation that we want others to start driving more fuel efficient cars and less about a social coordination.
What do you think?