Rooting for the Underdog: The Psychological and Sociocultural Drivers Behind Our Preferences

The attraction of the underdog, a widespread phenomenon in which public sympathy is often directed toward the supposedly ‘weaker’ competitor, is fascinating from both psychological and sociocultural standpoint. In this article, I examine the reasons behind our collective tendency to root for the underdog, drawing on fields such as social psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and cultural […]

Rooting for the Underdog: The Psychological and Sociocultural Drivers Behind Our Preferences
Rooting for the Underdog: The Psychological and Sociocultural Drivers Behind Our Preferences
  • Yayınlanma1 June 2023 08:31
  • Güncelleme5 June 2023 07:38

The attraction of the underdog, a widespread phenomenon in which public sympathy is often directed toward the supposedly ‘weaker’ competitor, is fascinating from both psychological and sociocultural standpoint. In this article, I examine the reasons behind our collective tendency to root for the underdog, drawing on fields such as social psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and cultural anthropology.

Our tendency to support underdogs traces back to basic psychological principles. One explanation for our preference for underdogs lies in the ‘just-world hypothesis,’ a psychological theory that says humans are naturally predisposed to favor fairness and balance.

According to Lerner and Miller’s research, we are innately predisposed to believe in a just world in which good deeds are rewarded and bad deeds are punished (Lerner, M. & Miller, D. T. 1978). When confronted with competition, we often see the underdog as disadvantaged, which evokes our inclination to redress the balance by supporting him. If we look at a Kurdish folktale such as “Kawe the Blacksmith,” in which Kawe stands up to the tyrant Zahak, we see Kawe as the disadvantaged underdog and feel compelled to root for him to restore balance.

Neuroscience studies support this psychological preference for underdogs. The research of Singer and Lamm (2009) suggest that empathetic responses to an outsider’s story are associated with increased activity in brain regions such as the anterior insular cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex. These areas are involved in emotional responses and empathy, leading us to ’empathise’ with the outsider and share his or her struggles. A parallel can be drawn to the poignant film “Bekas,” a Kurdish film about two orphaned brothers. Their struggle against harsh reality touches us deeply and leads us to ’empathise’ with the underdog and share their struggle.

Our identification with the underdog also stems from our experience of vulnerability. As humans, we face uncertainties and difficulties throughout our lives and often feel like outsiders in various scenarios. This feeling activates mirror neurons, as was shown in the study by Rizzolatti and Craighero (2004), a type of brain cell that fires when performing or observing the same action. By observing the underdog, such as the tenacious Katniss Everdeen in “The Hunger Games,” we vicariously experience her struggles, leading to a deeper emotional connection and increased support. And when we read the work of Kurdish poet Sherko Bekas, who often highlights the struggle of the Kurdish people in his poetry, we vicariously experience the trials of the underdog, leading to deeper emotional connection and support.

From a sociocultural perspective, the underdog narrative is a recurring theme in our literature, media, and folklore. As such, stories become part of our cultural ethos and shape our preferences and behaviors. For example, the story of Mem and Zin, a tragic romance often compared to Romeo and Juliet, has been a cornerstone of Kurdish oral tradition for centuries. In this story, Mem, despite his lower social status, wins our sympathy and support against the powerful figure of Bakr, the antagonist.

It’s important to note, however, that not everyone has an affinity for the underdog. Factors such as personality traits, cultural backgrounds, and personal experiences may cause some people to identify with and support the dominant competitor (Vandello, J.A., Goldschmied, N.P., & Richards, D.A.R. 2007). As with the portrayal of Tony Stark in “Iron Man” some people are attracted to the confident, successful competitor because they find him more desirable.

In conclusion, our affinity for underdogs is a multifaceted phenomenon deeply rooted in our psychological and sociocultural structure. It signifies our collective desire for fairness, resilience, and triumph against adversity. Further studies in this area could shed light on other facets of human nature, social dynamics, and the impact of narratives on our behavior and preferences.

References:

  1. 1 – Gladwell, M. (2013). David and Goliath: Underdogs, misfits, and the art of battling giants. Little, Brown and Company.
  2. 2 – Singer, T., & Lamm, C. (2009). The social neuroscience of empathy. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1156(1), 81-96.
  3. 3 – Rizzolatti, G., & Craighero, L. (2004). The mirror-neuron system. Annual review on neuroscience, 27, 169-192.
  4. 4 – Vandello, J.A., Goldschmied, N.P., & Richards, D.A.R. (2007). The Appeal of the Underdog. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33(12), 1603–1616.
  5. 5 – Lerner, M., & Miller, D. T. (1978). Just world research and the attribution process: Looking back and ahead. Psychological Bulletin, 85(5), 1030-1051.