As college basketball fans nationwide prepare their annual NCAA tournament brackets, some are tempted to stick with favorites like Duke, Kansas or Ohio State. But others tend to root for perennial underdogs like Gonzaga and Butler—or this year’s underdog darlings, the Penn State Nittany Lions, who had a big win over Michigan State this past weekend, and enter the tournament against Temple with only a 350-1 chance of becoming NCAA champions.
With money on the line in an office pool, why would anyone choose an underdog to go to the Final Four?
The safest bet is to root for the front-runner, the ‘overdog.’ And yet studies show, over and over, that people will instinctively cheer for the underdog and—more importantly—root against the more powerful teams.
So what do we know about this love for the underdog and hatred for the overdog. One thing studies have found is that this love and hate are blind love and blind hate.
In a “double-blind” study, two groups of test subjects were shown an identical video clip of two evenly-matched basketball teams. One group was told that Team A was the ‘underdog,’ and they immediately supported this ‘underdog’ team by a factor of nearly 2-1 and praised them for their ‘hustle’ and ‘heart.’ Then the other test subjects were shown the same video clip and told that Team B was the underdog. Immediately they threw their support behind Team B (now labeled ‘underdog’) citing their ‘hustle’ and their ‘heart.’
What is going on here? How can people watch the same basketball game, with the same teams, and yet come to remarkably different conclusions about which side has more ‘hustle’ and ‘heart,’ and which side is more worthy of support, based simply on whichever side was labeled an ‘underdog?’
What researchers are beginning to discover, and what I have found through five years of primary research in my new book Underdogma, is that people make unconscious decisions all the time about which side to support, in any given contest, based simply on whichever side has less or more power. This “Axis of Power,” between power-haves and power have-nots, explains why we love to hate big rich fat-cat CEOs, why we love to cheer for underdog singers on American Idol, and why so many hoops fans bypass their rational minds each March to pick underdogs in their office pools.
But there is a dark side to Underdogma. Think of it as ‘March Madness’ meets ‘Yankee Derangement Syndrome.’ It is not enough for some people to just root against more powerful ‘overdog’ teams. Studies show that two-thirds of people will even bet against their own interests, and cost themselves money, if it means knocking an ‘overdog’ down from its pedestal.
Another study gave test subjects a modest amount of money (money=power, but in this case, money is a metaphor for talent on the basketball court). Let us call these modestly-wealthy underdog test subjects “Gonzaga.” Gonzaga was then informed that another group of test subjects, let us call them “Ohio State,” had been given significantly more money (AKA talent). Did the knowledge that others had more change the way Gonzaga felt about the modest amount of money (power, talent) it had? What would happen if Gonzaga was then told that they could “burn” Ohio State’s money, with one condition: every dollar of Ohio State’s money they “burn” would cost Gonzaga 25 cents. No matter what happens, if Gonzaga goes down this road and starts burning Ohio State’s money, Gonzaga will reduce its own wealth, guaranteed.
A pair of economists at the universities of Oxford and Warwick conducted this experiment in 2001. The results surprised them. “Are people willing to pay to burn other people’s money?” they asked. “The short answer to this question is: yes. Our subjects gave up large amounts of their cash to hurt others in the laboratory. The extent of burning was a surprise to us…Even at a price of 0.25 (meaning that to burn another person’s dollar costs me 25 cents), many people wished to destroy other individuals’ cash.”
This scorn for those who have more (overdogs) was so strong that it compelled two-thirds of test subjects to harm themselves (reduce their amount of money) in order to knock down overdogs who had more. The researchers called this phenomenon “the dark side of human nature.” I call it Underdogma.
So, what is an underdog-lover to do when it comes to placing March Madness bets? Try not to let the madness of Underdogma cloud your mind to the point where you are burning your own money.
Michael Prell is an expert on underdogs, and the author of the new book Underdogma.