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The Psychology of the Underdog

Four wins, 104 losses. That was the all-time record of the teams seeded at #15 heading into this year’s NCAA college basketball tournament for men. This year, in their first game, the #15-seeds went 2-2.

This is why people love the NCAA tournament: A chance to root for the underdog!

Not intimidated by their powerhouse opponents, Norfolk State and Lehigh exercised a David vs. Goliath fearlessness as they competed hard, improving their “fight” as the game progressed. The crowds rallied behind these underdogs excited for the distant possibility of an upset. Many of the fans had never heard of these schools before this month yet fans were jumping up and down with such passion and zest that one would think their own child was playing in the game.

How could this be? What is the psychology behind this underdog phenomena?

In part, the answer lies in our character strengths.

  • We tend to evaluate underdogs in a positive light. Some researchers believe this might have something to do with deeply held beliefs of justice and fairness. Fairness is one of the most frequently endorsed character strengths around the world. There are seeds of fairness in every person. By definition, the underdog does not fare as well as the top dog thus it is easy for a fan’s fairness buttons to be pushed where they root for the underdog to have a chance to make it to the limelight.
  • In order to win, underdogs must express a high degree of effort. And they express this effort over a long duration, surpassing the obstacles that come their way. This describes the character strength of perseverance. Perseverance is one of the most motivating character strengths to view. If you don’t believe me, check out It’s a Wonderful Life, Slumdog Millionaire, virtually any film in AFI’s list of top 100 most inspiring films, or the runaway sensation, Hunger Games. Perseverance is inspirational.
  • We have all struggled and appeared small, vulnerable, or weak in comparison to another. Perhaps we’ve been teased, taunted, or even bullied? At the least, we’ve faced significant challenges at one point or another. Seeing the underdog, we empathize with their plight. Their chance to win becomes our chance to win. Maybe, in some way, the underdog’s victory helps us overcome a psychological wound from long ago. This might present an opportunity for us to use personal courage – to face something in ourselves – to use our character strength of bravery.

Fairness. Perseverance. Bravery. These are just a few of the character strengths involved in the underdog phenomena. When we have the chance to experience any of these, we feel us a sense of satisfaction.

As the NCAA tournament progresses, the underdog options will be dwindling quickly. Who will you root for? What character strengths will the underdog inspire in you?


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Niemiec, R. M., & Wedding, D. (2008). Positive psychology at the movies: Using films to build virtues and character strengths. Cambridge, MA: Hogrefe.

Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Character strengths in fifty-four nations and the fifty US states. Journal of Positive Psychology, 1(3), 118-129.

Vandello, J. A., Goldschmied, N. P., & Richards, D. A. R. (2007).  The appeal of the underdog.  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33, 1603-1616.

Wall, D. G., & Wall, J. R. (2009). Nominations for the best underdog picture are…and the winner is… [Review of the motion picture Slumdog millionaire]. PsycCRITIQUES – Contemporary Psychology: APA Review of Books, 54(8), doi: 10.1037/a0015533


The Psychology of the Underdog

Ryan M. Niemiec, Psy.D

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APA Reference
Niemiec, R. (2012). The Psychology of the Underdog. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 21, 2020, from


Last updated: 19 Mar 2012
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