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March 2007 The Faculty, Staff and Student Newspaper of the University of Richmond

A 'rags-to-riches' story
Faculty, students study why we root for, then abandon the underdog

By Barbara Fitzgerald

Scott Allison Scott Allison studies the underdog phenomenon.

You’re a good man, Charlie Brown, but when push comes to shove, we’re putting our money on Lucy.

That’s the conclusion of new research conducted by Dr. Scott Allison, professor of psychology, on the underdog—that little-guy, born-loser, hopeless long shot in the competitions of life. Underdogs often emerge in sports, games, movies, business settings, reality shows and elections. Rags-to-riches stories are part of the American Dream and one reason we root for Rocky Balboa, Cinderella, the Hoosiers, Erin Brockovich, Seabiscuit and, yes, Charlie Brown.

But the research, conducted with Dr. George Goethals, professor of leadership studies, and Dr. Dafna Eylon, associate professor of management systems and psychology, shows that our support of the underdog is highly conditional and fragile.

“The minute we have a personal stake in an outcome,” Allison says, “we’ll turn against the underdog in a heartbeat and go with a winner.” Just look at our allegiance to our favorite sports teams, he points out. “When the football team we support wins, we say ‘our team’ won, but if there’s not a win, then ‘they’ lost. We almost automatically disassociate ourselves from losers.”

Finances also come into play when support for an underdog is tested. Allison points out for example, the love-hate relationship people have with companies like Wal-Mart. “We all say we root for the mom-and-pop shop,” he says, “but when the price on the DVD is cheaper at Wal-Mart, that’s more than likely where we buy.” So while the anecdotal evidence is out there, Allison and the psychology majors who assisted with the research approach the question scientifically.

“The students were an amazing part of this,” says Allison. “They brainstormed and generated ideas for the research, created testing materials, conducted independent studies and analyzed the data.”

Emily Jenchura, ’08, who did an independent study on the underdog project last year, carried her excitement about underdog research with her to South Africa, where she is studying abroad. “While I am here,” she writes, “I plan on imitating the study with South African students at the University of Cape Town and comparing the results with the study conducted at Richmond.” She is especially interested that “while society roots for underdogs, it also … views them as less capable”—one of the most significant findings of Allison’s research.

Allison directed four studies, using undergraduate volunteers, to demonstrate the “underdog effect” and the conditions under which support for the underdog is abandoned. In one study, two groups of participants (one composed of students with no background in art, the other advanced art students) were asked to evaluate a painting that, they were told, the artist hoped to enter in a competition. Though both groups viewed the same painting (actually created by a student of Allison’s with a double major in psychology and art), the first group was told it was painted by a “starving artist” and the second group that an “experienced and successful artist” had produced it.

The novices rooted strongly for the starving artist, yet—in the crunch—judged the painting to be of inferior quality. The second group (the art students) was less involved emotionally in support of the “experienced artist” but rated the quality of the painting higher than the other group did. Allison says, “We may root for the underdog, but we don’t give the underdog much respect.”

Another aspect of the study explored whether participants would root for a disadvantaged business over an advantaged one. Among the psychology students helping with this research was Sheila Hindle, ’06, whose involvement she describes as “teasing apart the conditions under which people will genuinely support the underdog in a business setting.”

Participants were asked to consider two companies bidding on a building project, one a highly successful company that had won 20 of the past 25 jobs on which it had bid. The underdog company had been far less successful in getting contracts.

 Participants were found to be significantly more likely to root for the underdog business, but when it came time to award a bid on a bridge construction project, the students chose the more established firm. “While early research showed us that most people have a place in their heart for the underdog, when it actually comes time to take action,” Hindle concludes, “they will more often support the top dog.”

Hindle believes that Allison’s research will pinpoint when and how an underdog succeeds, and then “we can start to apply this knowledge to help businesses and sports teams and individuals to make the most of their particular situations, even when faced with incredible odds.”

Therein lies the heart of the implications for the underdog study, says Allison. “There is information here beneficial to agencies that work for individuals that might be considered underdogs. To the extent that we want to help the poor, the weak and the down-and-out, the perceptions this research reveals are interesting and relevant.”