Between cheering for the amazing Oakland A’s as they battled seemingly insurmountable odds to win their division title this past week, and a recent viewing of The Bad News Bears* with my kids, I’ve been thinking about underdogs of late. They’re the disadvantaged. The marginalized. The nobodies. The Boy Who Lived and The Girl on Fire.
But whether in movies or life or literature, these are the characters we fall in love with. They capture our hearts and hold our emotions, and we root for them, no matter the obstacles.
So what is it about the underdog myth that intrigues us?
A recent article published in the Basic and Applied Social Psychology journal titled The Future is Bright: The Underdog Label, Availability, and Optimism** seeks to understand the concept and how it has worked its way into our cultural psyche. The authors of the article suggest that our love affair with the underdog is based on two different (and seemingly incongruent) factors:
- The underdog is unlikely to win.
- We believe the underdog will win.
The authors also note that in real life, a team or individual with a competitive disadvantage is, well, probably going to lose. But because our society so reveres the rags-to-riches, against-all-odds types of victories, it is the underdog-as-winner stories that stick in our minds and get retold again and again. The emotional payoff is huge and these tales become a part of the cultural lore. It's not as interesting when the hare beats the tortoise or the evil stepsister gets the prince or the Yankees win the World Series again, so now we've come to expect the underdog to prevail...even if that expectation isn't rational.
What do you think of the underdog myth? Do you have a favorite underdog character or story?
*If you've seen The Bad News Bears, then you know it's a story that actually bucks the underdog myth in a very specific way. And if you haven't seen it, do! It's a great film.
**Goldschmied, N. & Vandello, J. (2012). The future is bright: The underdog label, availability, and optimism. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, Vol. 34, Iss. 1, 2012.