Romanticizing the Underdog

DAVID YANDA | OPINION COLUMNIST

We crave the upset. We long for the results that prove the probabilities meaningless. We recklessly pour our emotional stock into the unlikely winner. But why do we find ourselves caught in the charm of the underdog, even when this habit surely leads to frequent disappointment? How have we not been pruned to root for the favorited team at the gain of our own well-being? Why not be enamored by the projected champion? Probably a number of factors.

It’s because our childhood stories have fostered an infatuation with the against-all-odds character—the flicks and sagas that hold a delightful place in our hearts have both convinced us that the underdog will inevitably prevail and that this is the way the world ought to be. The Frodo Baggins, the Wall-Es, the Mulans, the Forrest Gumps, the Davids and their Goliaths—all these tales don’t just push us to our seat ends, but actively shape how we’d like reality’s playwright to pen the human narrative. We cheer for the underdogs because, to some degree, we believe they ought to win, or perhaps we’ve just grown so accustomed to the unexpected triumph that we anticipate it. We begin to recognize the underdog as the eventual winner-in-disguise.

But how has the underdog chronicle risen to star status in the first place? It’s surprisingly favorable to our well-being to cheer for the small fry. Our subconscious statisticians have actually run the cost-benefit analysis of who we ought to place our chips on, and, it turns out, the dark horse is the best bet over time. Entering the game with truncated expectations means the scarce upsets taste that much sweeter, and worth the gamble of an unsavory setback—backing the underdog is simply a game of low-risk-high-reward emotional investment.

Our obsession derives from a capitalist culture where any thoughts of unequal chances to win are unsettling. So, naturally, we want to prove all that wrong by showing pre-game projections to be worthless. A win for the underdog is a win for capitalism. And maybe that’s why we tend to make more positive assumptions in the underdog’s character. She’s got better work ethic, he’s humble, she’s courageous, he’s passionate—they’ve all got to be if they’re proving the odds to be irrelevant!

We relate to them on a personal level. We’re all the underdogs of our own stories. We all surmount our own tribulations, even when it looks grim and doubt sinks into our spirits like a plague. Just as we rose above to the unlikely conquest, so too do the longshots hit their mark, and the feeling becomes reignited as we vicariously live through their victories. Or maybe we never knew what that feeling was, and now we can.

In the end, the underdog’s allure takes many forms, all with their own solid reasons. However, all these reasons take on a selfish tone to them, or at least a self-centered one, and maybe that’s not right. What of the favorited team? Are we unjustly short-shooting them for the praise they deserve?

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