Why Support the Underdog?

One of the strangest hu­man bi­ases is the al­most uni­ver­sal ten­dency to sup­port the un­der­dog.

I say “hu­man” be­cause even though Amer­i­cans like to iden­tify them­selves as par­tic­u­lar friends of the un­der­dog, you can find a lit­tle of it ev­ery­where. Any­one who’s watched anime knows the Ja­panese have it. Any­one who’s read the Bible knows the Is­raelites had it (no one was root­ing for Go­liath!) From mythol­ogy to liter­a­ture to poli­tics to sports, it keeps com­ing up.

I say “uni­ver­sal” be­cause it doesn’t just af­fect silly things like sports teams. Some psy­chol­o­gists did a study where they showed par­ti­ci­pants two maps of Is­rael: one show­ing it as a large coun­try sur­round­ing the small Pales­ti­nian en­claves, and the other show­ing it as a tiny is­land in the mid­dle of the hos­tile Arab world. In the “Pales­ti­ni­ans as un­der­dogs” con­di­tion, 55% said they sup­ported Pales­tine. In the “Is­raelis as un­der­dogs” con­di­tion, 75% said they sup­ported Is­rael. Yes, you can change opinion thirty points by al­ter­ing per­ceived un­der­dog sta­tus. By com­par­i­son, my in­for­mal ex­per­i­ments try­ing to teach peo­ple rele­vant facts about the re­gion’s his­tory changed opinion ap­prox­i­mately zero per­cent.

(Oh, and the Is­raelis and Pales­ti­ni­ans know this. That’s why the pro­pa­ganda hand­books they give to their re­spec­tive sup­port­ers—of course they give their sup­port­ers pro­pa­ganda hand­books! - speci­fi­cally sug­gest the sup­port­ers por­tray their cho­sen cause as an un­der­dog. It’s also why ev­ery time BBC or some­one shows a clip about the re­gion, they get com­plaints from peo­ple who thought it didn’t make their cho­sen side seem weak enough!)

And there aren’t many miti­gat­ing fac­tors. Even when the un­der­dog is ob­vi­ously com­pletely doomed, we still iden­tify with them: wit­ness Leonidas at Ther­mopy­lae. Even when the un­der­dog is evil and the pow­er­ful fac­tion is good, we can still feel a lit­tle sym­pa­thy for them; I re­mem­ber some of my friends and I talk­ing about bin Laden, and ad­mit­ting that al­though he was clearly an evil ter­ror­ist scum­bag, there was still some­thing sort of awe­some about a guy who could take on the en­tire west­ern world from a cave some­where.

I say “strangest” be­cause I can’t make heads or tails of why evolu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy would al­low it. Let’s say Zug and Urk are bat­tling it out for supremacy of your hunter-gath­erer tribe. Urk comes to you and says “Hey, my fac­tion is re­ally weak. We don’t have a chance against Zug, who is much stronger than us. I think we will prob­a­bly be defeated and hu­mil­i­ated, and our prop­erty di­vided up among Zug’s sup­port­ers.”

The purely ra­tio­nal re­sponse seems to be “Wow, thanks for warn­ing me, I’ll go join Zug’s side right now. Riches and high sta­tus as part of the win­ning fac­tion, here I come!”

Now, many of us prob­a­bly would join Zug’s side. But in­tro­spec­tion would tell us we were op­pos­ing ra­tio­nal calcu­la­tion on Zug’s side to a na­tive, pre­con­scious sup­port for Urk. Why? The na­tive pre­con­scious part of our brain is usu­ally the one that’s re­ally good at end­ing up on top in tribal power strug­gles. This sort of thing goes against ev­ery­thing it usu­ally stands for.

I can think of a few ex­pla­na­tions, none of them satis­fy­ing. First, it could be a mechanism to pre­vent any one per­son from get­ting too pow­er­ful. Prob­lem is, this sounds kind of like group se­lec­tion. Maybe the group does best if there’s no one dic­ta­tor, but from an in­di­vi­d­ual point of view, the best thing to do in a group with a pow­er­ful dic­ta­tor is get on that dic­ta­tor’s good side. Any sin­gle in­di­vi­d­ual who ini­ti­ates the strat­egy of sup­port­ing the un­der­dog gets crushed by all the other peo­ple who are still on the dic­ta­tor’s team.

Se­cond, it could be a mechanism to go where the re­wards are high­est. If a hun­dred peo­ple sup­port Zug, and only ten peo­ple sup­port Urk, then you have a chance to be­come one of Urk’s top lieu­tenants, with all the high sta­tus and re­pro­duc­tive op­por­tu­ni­ties that im­plies if Urk wins. But I don’t like this ex­pla­na­tion ei­ther. When there’s a big dis­par­ity in fac­tion sizes, you have no chance of win­ning, and when there’s a small dis­par­ity in fac­tion sizes, you don’t gain much by sid­ing with the smaller fac­tion. And as size differ­en­tial be­tween groups in­creases, the smaller fac­tion’s chance of suc­cess should drop much more quickly than the op­por­tu­ni­ties for sta­tus with the smaller fac­tion should rise.

So I ad­mit it. I’m stumped. What does Less Wrong think?