Hamel: We love underdogs, don’t we? Psychology fooled you

Opinion editor and columnist Peyton Hamel delves into why we adore our dear underdogs. 

Peyton Hamel

Remember the 2007 film “Underdog“? The one where a pup with almost no significance becomes the protagonist hero we dream of? We can’t help but love our precious underdog. The film left 84 percent of viewers having a positive experience. But why?

We love the underdog because we can identify with the underdog. I mean, let’s be honest, who wins more than they fail? We hear it all the time. “There will always be someone smarter, more athletic and more beautiful.” If we really think about it, the underdog is anyone who doesn’t win — so anyone who doesn’t get first place. That is a lot of underdogs. We want to believe that the traditional losers can win it all, that the guppy will beat the shark. 

In P!nk’s new documentary, “Pink: All I Know So Far,” P!nk says, “I have always identified with people who struggle.” Underdog.

In March Madness, we love looking for that “upset.” We would love Iowa State to beat Gonzaga (if that lineup were to even happen). Underdog. It’s so much more exciting. 

In any Marvel movie, it always appears as if the villain has the coolest abilities and the power of the Trojan Horse. Our superheroes look like the underdogs. And we love them. Applause for Hollywood for taking advantage of a psychological phenomenon: schadenfreude.

Schadenfreude is an adopted word from German. Schaden means damage or harm. Freude means joy or pleasure. Hence, we come to “damage-joy.” But this term also encompasses our dear Americanism. Americanism refers to “ideals and ideologies or to a way of life.” It’s very personal. It reflects our competitive, under-dogging society. Want to be a top-brand CEO? You have to underdog whoever is at the top. Politics is not excluded. Take Romney as an example. It was branding

Although we hate to admit it, humans like to revel in the downfall of others. It puts us in a suitably profitable position. Moralists hate schadenfreude. The Guardian author Tiffany Watt Smith states, “The philosopher [and Moralist] Arthur Schopenhauer called it ‘an infallible sign of a thoroughly bad heart and profound moral worthlessness,’ the worst trait in human nature.” Moralists are quite optimistic. No human can possibly uphold every moral, nor do they inherently want to. Smith makes another excellent point, “Sometimes we judge wrongly, and our schadenfreude leaves us feeling morally awkward.” We judge and we don’t like to, but we’re humans. Oops.

Joseph Stromberg from Vox proposes another theory as to why we love the underdog: we don’t want to get our hopes up. We want unexpected successes. We want to be surprised and gratified. 

I scoured some Quora forums for some more unique answers. I found some that were quite entertaining. 

Gye Nyame, former CNA at Nursefinders, says, “Most of the time, the underdog is the one with nothing to lose because he or she has nothing [to begin with]. Therefore, they’re not controlled by endorsements, new trends, nor are they trying to fit in.” I somewhat disagree. Sometimes the motivation to win is to get an endorsement, follow a new trend or prove themselves. As underdog lovers, we don’t actually know the reason for why the an underdog wants to partake in under-dogging. We love the underdog nonetheless. 

Sumeet Chilwal says, “Probably because they need them, so that they can feel the hope and the desire to achieve something just like the underdog who makes the established players run for their money.” Now, that I can agree with.

We have limits, though, and so does the concept of the underdog. We only root for certain underdogs. Those who try just as hard as those who succeed, but get very little in return. We believe in justice, but unfortunately, talent and luck has a lot to do with success. 

Despite the various reasons for why we love underdogs, the adoration and hope invested in them will always remain. Goodbye to the monopolies and goodbye to those who hog blue ribbons. Everyone wants to compete and to win.