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In the battle between David and Goliath, David is an archetypal example of an underdog.

An underdog is a person or group in a competition, usually in sports and creative works, who is largely expected to lose.[1] The party, team, or individual expected to win is called the favorite or top dog. In the case where an underdog wins, the outcome is an upset. An "underdog bet" is a bet on the underdog or outsider for which the odds are generally higher.

The first recorded uses of the term occurred in the second half of the 19th century;[2][3] its first meaning was "the beaten dog in a fight".[4]

In British and American culture, underdogs are highly regarded. This harkens back to core Judeo-Christian stories, such as that of David and Goliath, and also ancient British legends such as Robin Hood and King Arthur. This is also reflected in the idea of the American dream, where someone from a low social class can achieve success through hard work. Sports are another instance where underdogs are highly valorized, reflected in both real events, such as the Miracle on Ice, and in popular culture depictions of sports. Spectators and commentators are commonly drawn to establishing one side as the underdog, even if both teams are considered evenly matched.[5]

In fiction, the Fool archetype is often an underdog if they are depicted as the main character. Their apparent ineptitude leads to people underestimating their true abilities, and they are able to succeed against a more powerful, "establishment" villain. An example in film is The Tramp portrayed by Charlie Chaplin.[6]

Social norms


People often root for underdogs for various psychological and cultural reasons; for example, witnessing and experiencing underdog challenges can lead us to empathise with the effort required to overcome such obstacles, fostering a connection with others who confront similar hardships.[7] This shared understanding may, in turn, contribute to breaking social norms by challenging prevailing expectations and disrupting established power dynamics. Social norms often dictate that success is reserved for those in privileged or dominant positions; however, the underdog narrative challenges this norm by portraying individuals or groups who are perceived as disadvantaged, less powerful, or less likely to succeed.[8] One could argue that individuals or groups perceived as underdogs may face a different set of expectations and allowances within a social context. The underdog is often seen as disadvantaged or less likely to conform to established norms. In this context, society might be more lenient or accept norm violations from underdogs, as their perceived struggles or challenges may evoke empathy or understanding.   

Social justice


We also rally round the underdog to satisfy our need for social justice. Supporting the underdog gives us a sense of agency and empowerment as we align ourselves with those fighting against the odds. It reinforces the belief that individuals can overcome adversity and effect positive change, promoting a sense of hope and optimism for social justice efforts. Humans naturally support social justice, as seen in a study publicised by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.[9] This study examined how individuals and groups manage shared resources. The results revealed differences in resource allocation and outcomes based on group size. These findings shed light on our innate preference to fairness and equality, as how individuals and groups allocate and utilise these resources reflects principles of fairness and equality.

Underdog and schadenfreude


Austrian psychologist Fritz Heider argues that the concept of schadenfreude plays an essential role in the sympathy gained by the underdog particularly when the dominant party is perceived as undeserving of their success. This phenomenon has received attention from social scientists who argue that resentment towards high-status individuals can fuel Schadenfreude when they experience a downfall.[10]  Heider suggests there is tendency to root against the "top dog," or those perceived as riding high, indicating a pleasure from watching them fail, thus we support the underdog. The interconnection between rooting for the underdog and Schadenfreude is illustrated in a study by Stephen Ceci and Edward Kain (1982) in the context of political elections.[11] Their findings suggest that exposure to polls depicting a candidate as having a dominant position did not evoke positive feelings towards the underdog but instead created a negative reaction towards the dominant candidate. This negative reaction could be indicative of a form of schadenfreude, where individuals derive satisfaction from seeing the dominant figure falter. When participants were shown the leading contender in the polls, they tended to move away from supporting them, possibly due to a subconscious pleasure in witnessing their potential downfall. However, when presented with information indicating a shift in the polls towards the underdog, participants shifted their support back to the leading contender. This shift in support suggests that the pleasure derived from the underdog's potential victory may not necessarily stem from genuine support for the underdog but rather from the satisfaction of seeing the leading candidate lose their position of power. This highlights how opposition reactivity, possibly driven by schadenfreude towards the leading candidate, influences shifts in support towards the underdog during electoral contests.

Both underdog support and Schadenfreude are influenced by perceptions of deserving and fairness within competitive contexts.[12] The interplay between these two phenomena sheds light on the complex motivations underlying individuals' reactions to competitive situations, where notions of justice, fairness, and deserving play crucial roles in shaping emotional responses.[13]

Limitations of the underdog


Studies supporting the underdog effect often face challenges in accurately assessing its implications. Despite efforts to create realistic scenarios, limitations persist in capturing the emotional nuances and social dynamics present in real-life situations where underdog support is observed. For instance, Stephen Ceci and Edwards Kain's (1982)[11] study may be susceptible to demand characteristics or social desirability bias, potentially influencing participants' responses. Such biases could affect the authenticity of participants' expressions of support or disdain for candidates depicted in polls, especially in sensitive contexts like political elections.

Moreover, reliance on self-report measures in the study may oversimplify participants' emotional reactions, particularly concerning complex psychological phenomena like schadenfreude. Additionally, the study's exclusive focus on electoral contexts may limit the generalizability of its findings to other domains, such as sports or business competitions, where underdog phenomena and schadenfreude may manifest differently. Future research could mitigate these limitations by employing diverse methodological approaches and exploring underdog and schadenfreude dynamics across various contexts to gain a more comprehensive understanding of these phenomena.

Furthermore, there are challenges in distinguishing underdog support from schadenfreude, underscoring the intricate relationship between these psychological constructs. While the assumption is that both forces operate in the same direction, they may represent interchangeable phenomena rather than distinct processes. Attempts to disentangle them may have inadvertently created a byproduct, complicating rather than clarifying their distinction. This suggests that the emotions associated with supporting underdogs and experiencing schadenfreude may be more intertwined than previously recognized, posing difficulties for researchers seeking to isolate and comprehend each theory independently.[13] Further investigation into the complex interplay between underdog support and schadenfreude is necessary to unravel their intricate dynamics fully.

Additionally, underdog narratives can sometimes reinforce stigmatization, highlighting the need to address paternalistic tendencies that may portray underdogs as objects of sympathy rather than active agents.[14] Such portrayals risk overlooking the agency and dignity of individuals marginalised by society, perpetuating symbolic tokenism rather than genuine empowerment.



In sports, the terms Cinderella, "Cinderella story", and Cinderella team are used to refer to situations in which competitors achieve far greater success than would reasonably have been best expected.[15][16] Cinderella stories tend to gain much media and fan attention as they move closer to the tournament final game.[17]

The term comes from the well-known European folk tale of Cinderella, which embodies a myth-element of unjust oppression and triumphant reward, when the title character's life of poverty is suddenly changed to one of remarkable fortune. In a sporting context the term has been used at least since 1939, but came into widespread usage in 1950, when the Disney movie was released that year, and in reference to City College of New York, the unexpected winners of the NCAA Men's Basketball championship also that year.[18] The term was used by Bill Murray in the 1980 movie Caddyshack where he pretends as the announcer to his own golf fantasy: "Cinderella story. Outta nowhere. A former greenskeeper, now, about to become the Masters champion."[19] Referring somewhat inaccurately to the plot details of the classic Cinderella story, the media will debate whether the given "Cinderella" team or player will "turn into a pumpkin", i.e. fail to win the prize and then return to its former obscurity.[20] In the fairy tale, it was the carriage that turned into a pumpkin at midnight, not Cinderella herself. Another popular term is "strike midnight", when a Cinderella team does finally get beaten.[21]

Prior to the widespread use of Cinderella in this way, the more common term for unexpected and dramatic success was Miracle, as in the "Miracle Braves" of 1914, the "Miracle on Grass" in 1950, the "Miracle of Coogan's Bluff" in 1951, the "Miracle Mets" of 1969, and the "Miracle on Ice" in 1980.[citation needed]

Cinderella teams are also referred to as a surprise package or surprise packet, and their success would be termed a fairy-tale run. A related concept is the giant-killer, which refers to a lesser competitor who defeats a favorite, reflecting the story of David and Goliath. In Soviet sport, particularly team sports like football and hockey, there appeared a term Thunder to the Dominant [teams] (Russian: Гроза авторитетов, Groza avtoritetov) that referred to underdog, often a strong mid-table team, of which the dominant teams were afraid. The title is still in use in the post-Soviet period and sometimes is given to "dark horse" teams which manage to win a major tournament.[22] There was an official sports award that was introduced by the Soviet sports weekly "Sportivnaya Moskva" in the 1970s and 1980s for football and hockey top competitions awarded to teams that managed to take away the biggest number of points from the last season top-three placed teams.[23]

See also



  1. ^ Keinan, Anat; Avery, Jill; Paharia, Neeru (November 2010). "Capitalizing on the Underdog Effect". Harvard Business Review (November 2010). Archived from the original on 13 April 2021. Retrieved 13 April 2013.
    "Everyone loves a scrappy underdog", as the article observes.
  2. ^ "Definition of UNDERDOG". www.merriam-webster.com. Archived from the original on 2016-05-29. Retrieved 2016-06-04.
  3. ^ The Shorter Oxford Dictionary, Third Edition, 1983. First use 1887.
  4. ^ The Shorter Oxford Dictionary, Third Edition, 1983.
  5. ^ Halberstam, J. Jack; Lowe, Lisa (2016). "Everybody Loves an Underdog". Asian American Sporting Cultures. NYU Press. p. 79. ISBN 978-1479840816.
  6. ^ Snyder, Blake (2005). "Give Me The Same Thing... Only Different!". Save the Cat!: The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need. Michael Wiese Productions. p. 37. ISBN 1615930000.
  7. ^ Kim, JongHan; Allison, Scott T.; Eylon, Dafna; Goethals, George R.; Markus, Michael J.; Hindle, Sheila M.; McGuire, Heather A. (October 2008). "Rooting for (and Then Abandoning) the Underdog". Journal of Applied Social Psychology. 38 (10): 2550–2573. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.2008.00403.x. ISSN 0021-9029.
  8. ^ HENRICH, JOSEPH (2015-10-27). The Secret of Our Success. Princeton University Press. doi:10.2307/j.ctvc77f0d. ISBN 978-1-4008-7329-6.
  9. ^ Allison, Scott T.; Messick, David M. (October 1985). "Effects of experience on performance in a replenishable resource trap". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 49 (4): 943–948. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.49.4.943. ISSN 1939-1315.
  10. ^ Heider, Fritz (1958). The psychology of interpersonal relations. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. doi:10.1037/10628-000. LCCN 58010801.
  11. ^ a b Ceci, Stephen J.; Kain, Edward L. (January 1982). "Jumping on the Bandwagon With the Underdog: The Impact of Attitude Polls on Polling Behavior". Public Opinion Quarterly. 46 (2): 228. doi:10.1086/268715.
  12. ^ Orujov, Ayan; Jones, Laurence (2023). "Schadenfreude or Support for the Underdog?: How Unexpected Sporting Outcomes Influence Retail Investor Behaviour". SSRN Electronic Journal. doi:10.2139/ssrn.4423168. ISSN 1556-5068.
  13. ^ a b Vandello, Joseph A.; Goldschmied, Nadav P.; Richards, David A. R. (December 2007). "The Appeal of the Underdog". Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 33 (12): 1603–1616. doi:10.1177/0146167207307488. ISSN 0146-1672. PMID 18000097.
  14. ^ Cowden, Birton J.; Bendickson, Joshua S.; Mathias, Blake D.; Solomon, Shelby J. (December 2022). "Straight OUTTA Detroit: Embracing Stigma as Part of the Entrepreneurial Narrative". Journal of Management Studies. 59 (8): 1915–1949. doi:10.1111/joms.12839. ISSN 0022-2380.
  15. ^ Merron, Jeff. "ESPN.com: Page 2 : Who are the greatest Cinderella stories?". ESPN.com. Retrieved 26 March 2017.
  16. ^ Kim, Suzie (26 March 2004). "Cinderella stories: Battling from the bottom up". The Gazette. Archived from the original on 16 July 2012. Retrieved 28 February 2014.
  17. ^ Bonsor, Kevin (17 March 2003). "How March Madness Works". HowStuffWorks.com. Retrieved 28 February 2014.
  18. ^ Forde, Pat (2009). "The Sweetest 16: Nobody loves a Cinderella story more than a college hoops fan. Here are some of the best.". ESPN College Basketball Encyclopedia: The Complete History of the Men's Game. New York: ESPN Books. p. 28. ISBN 9780345513922.
  19. ^ "Soundclip of Bill Murray in Caddyshack". MovieSoundsCentral. Retrieved 2007-02-26.
  20. ^ "March Madness 2013: Is Harvard the next 'Cinderella'?". Christian Science Monitor. 22 March 2013. Retrieved 10 June 2022.
  21. ^ "Clock Strikes Midnight for Cinderella Team George Mason - WRIC Richmond News and Weather -". Archived from the original on 2013-12-12. Retrieved 2013-03-24. "Clock Strikes Midnight For Cinderella Team George Mason"
  22. ^ Oleg Koshelev. The Thunder to the Dominant": the main sensations of the Russian Cup in football (Гроза авторитетов: главные сенсации Кубка России по футболу). TASS.
  23. ^ Thunder to the Dominant (Гроза авторитетов). HSF.narod.ru

Works cited