Why we love underdogs — like the Philadelphia Eagles and Trump

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Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania and lives in Philadelphia. He is the co-author of “The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools.” 

...   For several decades, psychologists have demonstrated that most people will favor a team that they perceive as overmatched. And it’s not just a sports thing, either. Studies have consistently shown that voters will rate a political candidate higher when she or he is portrayed as the underdog.

That’s why politicians as varied as Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have all claimed the underdog mantle. In a funny way, underdogs are the ultimate contradiction: They’re widely admired for lacking admiration.

What gives? Put simply, most of us are uncomfortable with inequality. We think it’s wrong for one team — or one guy — to have too great an advantage. So we root for the less advantaged, in the hopes that the scales of justice can be righted.

In a 2007 experiment, people were presented with an imaginary contest between Team A (the favorite) and Team B (the underdog). Team B got more support until it was revealed that Team A had a much lower payroll. After that, two-thirds of the people backed Team A.

But our affection for underdogs ends if we think they’ll harm our own self-interest. Psychologist Scott Allison calls this phenomenon the “Walmart effect.” In theory, we favor mom-and-pop shops over big-box stores. But we’ll still buy our new TVs and washing machines at Target or Walmart if we think we can get a better price.

Allison demonstrated this principle by asking a group of subjects whether they favored a large, established company or a small startup in awarding a contract to test drinking water. The subjects favored the little company until they were told that the water was in their hometown, and that it might contain “cancer-causing mercury.” After that, the majority of people changed their minds and backed the big business.And that has big implications for the way we think about our contemporary political moment. When Trump was campaigning for president, opponents from every party scoffed at his underdog claims. How could a man who was born into enormous wealth — and who avoided paying federal taxes for many years — possibly play the little guy?Trump’s answer was to focus on the so-called mainstream media, which had written him off. And on that score, he was right: Almost nobody who thinks seriously about politics foresaw him winning the White House. Indeed, if you believe Michael Wolff’s book, “Fire and Fury,” even Trump didn’t think he’d win.So the underdog rose from the ashes, proving all of the pundits and so-called experts wrong. And Trump has continued to play that card ever since, insisting that the “failing New York Times” and other media outlets are conspiring against him. ...
Read entire article at The San Francisco Chronicle

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