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Why We Root For The Underdog

There is a certain tendency people share but goes unnoticeable most of the time. People root for the underdogs. As much as we may like winners and high achievers and no matter how passionately we avoid loss and being associated with it at any cost, it so happens that from time to time we find ourselves rooting for the little guy. The participant that has the least chances to win. We basically pick deliberately the wrong side and roll the casino spinner hoping for a miracle.

I was actually quite surprised to catch myself shifting sides on who I support, on one of my favorite (mental) sport, chess. As I watching the World Champion, Magnus Carlsen playing against another chess player, I got a certain urge to see the worst player win. Or was it that I wanted to see the big guy lose? Still not sure, but what is curious about it is that I was always rooting for Magnus throughout his career, as he was the guy that managed to surpass so many expectations with his amazing performances and brilliant games that would make any common person blush in shyness.

Magnus Carlsen is something like the Michael Jordan of chess. He has managed to outperform opposition by such a margin that he can get clear wins out of most matches he participates in. All the way from his almost win to the legendary Garry Kasparov when he was merely 13 years old, up to the massacre tournaments, where every opponent transforms to a ship to be sacrificed in case they have a game with him.

So assuming someone was rooting for him for all those years, what changed now that he managed to establish himself as a clear first in the field? Wouldn’t it make more sense to go the opposite way and actually bet your money on the horse you know is gonna win the race? Or at least that has the most chances to? What is it that we see in the underdog that feels so attractive to make us take such a leap of faith?

Finding Your Voice

On the first level, there is a need to be different. By picking up the underdog you differentiate yourself from the masses with the distinctive, unique personality traits you own and separate you from the rest. It’s the underlying reason for the rise of the alternative movement and hipster mindset. It was never about the quality of the actual thing as much as for the fact that someone appreciated something everybody else seemed to ignore. You saw beauty when everybody else was moving along the factory lines like a mechanical robot. If you seek out a more self-aggrandizing move, it would be very doubtful you would find any. You get to revel in the feelings of superiority and laugh at the narrow-mindedness of everybody else with a diabolic smug in your face. The best daydream you had in a long time.

And it’s only natural to try to differentiate ourselves and create an identity stamp. I mean, we’ve all done it, haven’t we? But still, there are more levels in our choice that we need to uncover.

The Urge To destroy

There is a certain characteristic in my betrayal of my favorite chess player. I was with him all along in the first part of his story but abandoned ship the moment he established himself as the authority of chess. Right when his wins became a standard and were the expecting thing to happen. In the first part, there was a narrative again. The story of a young super-talented boy opposing the previously established players. Following someone’s path, as he levels up, is pushing you to focus on the hurdles and the problems he has to face. You can see the struggle on his every win and the sweat he pours out, as he moves along from one stage to the next. 

But this focus moves out the moment he reaches success. Suddenly the attention changes from the hard work he needs to do to maintain such a position to an imagined king thrown that was handed over to him, and now he gets to unjustifiedly enjoy. We somehow forget what it takes to get there and all the various soul-crushing responsibilities it entails and assume that he clinches from his position pushing everybody down from challenging it, even though they might deserve it more than him.

Suddenly their authority represents every established reality that stops us from shining through and showing our real talent in our lives. And how many times do we identify with the suppressed side that is deliberately and unfairly pushed down from those already in power? Aren’t we assume this role every time we utter about the status quo, or the unjust government and unfair game the best or even the rich guys play out? And then they push us down from achieving our goals and targets out of maliciousness, thus blockading us from our well-deserved success? How good a story is this, that we made for ourselves? And if that is nothing but a story, could it be that anytime we root for the underdog, we celebrate our failures with a good old lie?

Truth be told, it takes a great amount of work and energy to keep the progress you make, as much as it takes to land there in the first place. Success stories subtract the misfortunes and setbacks that happened along the way, giving the illusion it was always a smooth path to the top, the whole time. It hides the dilemmas someone had to face or the luck he had along his way by circumstances and good timing and creates the allure it was god’s will to happen that way. But take any story of a successful journey and you‘ll find nothing but pain and blood along its way.

The Fundamental Attribution Error

Our minds are made in such a way that abstract details to create a narrative that suits our preconceived notions. One of the commonest cognitive biases is the Fundamental Attribution Error. It’s the tendency we have to attribute circumstantial reasons for our failures, but denote personal traits for our successes. We basically emphasize our role in the good parts and downplay it in the bad parts. And vice versa many times we blame the personal characteristics of others for their failures and their good fortune for their wins.

So for example in case it happens that we fail to deliver a task or a project to the level we were hoping to, we are gonna become a dissecting machine enumerating through all the various forces at play that influenced the end result. The weather wasn’t right, other people mismanaged their part, the timing was wrong, etc. There are simply a million reasons why you didn’t reach the desired result and by all coincident none of them had anything to do with you.

Turn the tables around and as you observe others not achieving their goals, you will immediately assume personal traits contributing to the failure. They didn’t make the right decision; they weren’t fast enough and they could have handled it more graciously in 100 hundred different ways. All of a sudden situation plays no role in the case and can all be explained through the individual spectrum.

The Cultural Effect

Taking it a step further, we can observe the same pattern of thinking throughout the political systems and landscapes as well. You can observe how leftish systems over-emphasize the role of the state and the general situation each person is living in, as the main component for his success or failure. And similarly, you can see how the more right-aligned political views accentuate the individual role as if anyone who is willing to dream big and work hard can achieve all his aspirations.

This attribution dilemma seems to be ingrained not only in our strict and narrow circle of living but in our culture and societies as well, and can influence the way we operate with others.

In one social experiment, they showed a group of fishes to a number of participants. In all cases there would appear one fish, in particular, a bit separated from the rest, leading a bit in the front. When asked about their opinions about the situation, the participants were divided into 2 groups based on their responses.

The first group interpreted the image as a mere indication that the fish was not accepted as part of the team. Maybe it was some wrongdoing or some deficit characteristic it had, but it all came down to the fact that the group did not accept it as part of them and thus pushed it out.

The second group interpreted it in a completely different way, attributing the separation as the sole intention of the lone fish. It just wanted to mark its own way and make its own path.

It wouldn’t be surprising to know that the people in the first group were mostly of Chinese descent, or from countries that emphasize the importance of cohesion in society. On the other hand, the second group was constituted mostly from people in the United States that attributed the reasoning in more individualistic patterns. The same way all the Hollywood movies, narratives, and culture as a whole promotes the lonely wolf and the sole hero in the stories.

So we can see how societies that allow more room for individual expression can cultivate a fundamental thinking pattern, projecting the hero reality to everyone else. “Why don’t you go find a job, mate? Why don’t you work your way up and build yourself as I did?” It is easy, coming from such a culture, to assume that everybody else has an easy choice to make as long as he is decisive and he has some sort of skill. But we forget that many times opportunities are nowhere to be found and resources are only limited to the lucky few.

On the other hand, people in the opposite spectrum would be more prone to misattribute on the conditions side and assume that a lazy potato sitting on his couch all day watching the Kardashian’s show, has simply not being given enough opportunities in his life.

The Way Forward

It was some time ago that I decided to take on a weird experiment. I intentionally adopted the misattributing fallacy, on the individualistic side of it and centered myself as the main force behind everything happening in my life. No matter how good or bad, or how unjust it was and no matter how many bad coincidences would take place, and how many good excuses I could have brought forward for my defense, I would always assume it was all caused by me and everything was my doing.

Did any crazy coincidence happened that caused a goal of mine to fail? It was my fault for not considering the scenario and being more resilient. Did any of my peers acted crazy and refused to work their part? I should have cleared things out more decisively, in the beginning of it. It was always my fault, even when it wasn’t.

And before you object to the idea of it, here is a question for you. What do you have to gain really if you attribute your failures in random events in your surrounding? Even when your excuses are true what do you get out of it really? Other than the false reassuring that you did your part and you are all set, does the fact of stating your justifications helped you in achieving your goals? Does it promote your path forward in reaching your targets or it is veiling all the lost opportunities you could have taken to fluctuate the path towards different outcomes?

The Default Mode

Never forget that we operate under a fallacious notion. We tend to forget our blessings and considerate them a given after a while, all the while we always accentuate anything that doesn’t go our way. We explode in anger if our flight had a small delay ruminating on how it wasted our day and we forget how lucky we were to be raised up in a good environment that was keen to provide for us and our needs. And that is the reason that practicing gratitude is so important. It is the reminding of all the good things we have in our lives but our default modes want us to forget in the hunt for more. Perhaps it is time to reverse the misattribution fallacy in ways that suit us better…

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