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March Madness and the psychology of the underdog

Jake Schwebach
Jake Schwebach

There’s something so satisfying about an unknown team taking down who experts tell you all season is the crème de la crème.  To understand this phenomenon, let’s explore why underdogs are so darn loveable.

The word “underdog” originated in the 19th century: a time when dogfighting was quite common. A dog in submission would lie on its back (literally) under the prevailing dog. Simply, the underdog is the loser. Today, underdog is defined as one who is expected to lose in conflict or a victim of social injustices. The key word here is expected. Underdog has transformed from post–conflict loser to pre–conflict potential winner.


Spring flares a medical condition that affects millions of people nationwide: March Madness. This obsession with the NCAA basketball tournament has reached monumental proportion; this year alone, reported more than 11 million bracket entries to the ESPN Tournament Challenge. There have been, and always will be, Cinderella teams, if you will, tearing their way through bracket sheets and perhaps your wallet. As upsetting as upsets may be, it brings attention to a curious study in psychology. What if I told you the psychology behind your upset pick will also influence your next presidential election vote?

Our culture is an over-crowded kennel of underdog culture. We love a prevailing underdog story and they constantly surround us. From David and Goliath to The Hoosiers, underdog stories empathize with our own aspirations to be sensational. We remember the Boise States and the George Masons. We readily hop the sleeper bandwagon steered by shock, excitement, and bliss. Until, of course, they lose. Surprisingly, that underdog favoritism is least prevalent in sports than all other social domains.

Goldschied and Vandello’s last in a trio of studies published in Psychology Press used fictional stories to assess the underdog perception. Participants were given an article that stamped the underdog label to a sports team, business, or politician in competition with a daunting opponent. They were told the expert analysis was 30 percent likelihood that the underdog would succeed. Subjects were asked to give their own likelihood of the underdog’s success. The results averaged 41 percent in the sports domain, 42 percent in business, and a staggering 50 percent in politics. Results also uncover our underdog associations. The first used a method of word association to map underdog semantics. In the second study, participants gave their own definition of underdog and provided an example of an entity “not likely to succeed”. Research concluded we overestimate the underdog and wish for them to succeed because of the grandeur associated with overcoming-the-odds stories.

Underdog psychology has been researched on a worldwide political scale. Subjects briefed on the Arab–Israeli conflict were given a map. In half of the maps, Israel had a greater geopolitical border, Palestine in the other half. When asked which country suffered the most political injustices, the majority of subjects chose the country with the smaller border regardless of all other social factors presented.

With popular media obsession over globalization and politics, the underdog phenomenon gives some insight into why billions of dollars are poured into campaigning – money that could easily be spent on food, wealth and land distribution worldwide. The underdog phenomenon seems to only sharpen the sociopolitical and economic polarization that plagues this nation. Previous to the mid — to — late 20th century, politicians used campaign ads to frame themselves as the obvious winners. Now, tremendous efforts are taken to make the other party out to be Marvel Avengers–worthy villains. We’ve grown to hate the “other” party and the extremity is climbing even in the sports domain. Cleveland tried to burn the memory of their once-hero LeBron James with riots and a disparaging letter from the mayor. Though, Cleveland would happily take him back now in warm embrace. How many of us hate the Miami Heat, especially that first season, in the now Heat-dominated era? Be honest.

It’s okay to bask in the glory of that rare and unpredictable 14 seed beating the perennial 2 seed. Some of my best memories are storming the court of Moby Arena and hoisting our Rammies in the air. My thoughts? Keep it in the sports domain. Keep sports subjective and politics objective. It’s as awful a feeling to hate the villain as it is wonderful to cheer on the underdog. We don’t want it to become our world. So next year, when our Rammies are tearing their way through brackets, join in the madness.

Jake Schwebach is excited about his debut column, and particularly loves an underdog story. Feedback can be sent to

In Brief:

In March Madness, there is a very distinct psychology behind the love of the underdogs.


There are parallels between the sports underdog and the political underdog. Be aware.

Keep your love of sports subjective, and your political pick objective.


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