After being in the news for all the wrong reasons, England’s cricket team is in Australia preparing for the Ashes. The beleaguered squad is viewed by pretty much everyone as underdogs following the loss of star player Ben Stokes due to a disciplinary matter. Given the recent examples of underdogs overcoming their limitations in other sports (e.g., Leicester City Football Club going from relegation fodder to English Premier League winners, Danny Willet winning the US Masters while ranked the 102nd in the world, and the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series for the first time in 108-years), I briefly examine the concept and the factors that affect being viewed as an underdog.

David vs. Goliath

Underdogs are defined as individuals or groups that are at a disadvantage and expected to lose (Allison & Burnette, 2010Goldschmied & Vandello, 2009Vandello, Goldschmied, & Richards, 2007). Based on this definition, there are two intertwined elements to being an underdog that are worthy of further consideration.

First, underdogs are those considered to be at a disadvantage compared to their opponent. Be it, fewer resources, a smaller reputation, or in the case of the England cricket team, the loss of a star player. In such cases, this may be a motivating factor, in which the smaller, poorer, or disadvantaged group aim to prove that, despite these challenges, they are equal to their opponents. Second, underdog status can be achieved through lowered expectations and an anticipated loss.

The lowering of expectations can lead to third parties, such as commentators and pundits, viewing the underdog in a positive light. This is often explained by attribution theory which is concerned with how and why individuals use information to arrive at causal explanations for events. In other words, attribution theory “examines what information is gathered and how it is combined to form a causal judgment” (Fiske, & Taylor, 1991).

In the case of underdogs, Kim and colleagues (2008) suggest individuals sympathise with underdogs as a means of satisfying their need for fairness and equality. Further, watching an underdog achieve inspires us to see similarities in our own struggles and is low risk, high vicarious reward activity. Should David fail to beat Goliath, only limited resources have been expended and the outcome is easily rationalised.

Playing away

This lowering of external expectations may also have a negative influence on the player’s self-efficacy (i.e., belief that they can perform a specific task; Bandura, 1977). For example, when self-efficacy is low and external expectations high, it is not uncommon for individuals to “choke under pressure” (Baumeister, Hamilton, & Tice, 1985). In contrast, those who manage to maintain high levels of self-efficacy when external expectations are low may be perceived as over performing (Baumeister & Steinhilber, 1984).

This phenomenon appears to be exasperated when performing in front of a home crowd, which in this instance, may mean that England are better placed to perform in Australia than they would be at home. However, under the ever present critical glare of former players turned media pundits, England’s cricket team may find little solace from expectation and criticism in Australia.

Not so lovable losers

Although underdogs may be given sympathy for their predicament and receive additional support, Kim and colleagues (2008) suggest that this is not unconditional. An increase in external focus often results in more critical appraisal of team performance. Should the team begin well, Vandello and colleagues (2007) suggest that this will be attributed with their exerting increased effort. This then solicits greater support. However, this increased perception of effort and greater support does not necessarily lead to a positive evaluation of the underdog’s performance.

While an underdog can quickly capture our hearts, they have a much harder time winning over our minds.

Not a fan of the academic tone, take a look at this version instead: