Craig Nudelman roots for the underdog

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By the time this article is published, the Rugby World Cup will have finished. I unfortunately don’t know who the winner is while I’m writing this. Please G-d may it be the Springboks, but anything can happen. 

Look at how Japan just beat Ireland — the second time at a World Cup in which they’ve caused a massive upset (in 2015 it was us). Another upset that we saw was when Uruguay, who was definitely not a contender for the Web Ellis Trophy, defeated Fiji. I was so happy for them. While England played Tonga, I wanted the small island nation to win. Why is this? Why do we have the desire for the underdog to beat the more powerful and reliable winner? And, as Manchester United fan, do I now support an underdog myself? I’m hoping this column will address some of these questions.

Rooting for the underdog is not only the classic case of David versus Goliath. Science has backed up the idea that we do indeed often support the underdog, with multiple studies confirming the psychological reasons behind it. Vox.com gives evidence in the form of a theory by Nadav Goldschmied, a researcher from UC San Diego. He states we are not exactly resenting the other team winning, but are rather excited by the idea of a different result — essentially, everyone likes a ‘spoiler’. We root for the other team to lose, not only because they have more money to buy better players or the resources to train more effectively, but for the notion of the ‘upset’.  

However, the major reason is apparently schadenfreude — the pleasure we experience as a result of the misfortune of others. Dr Asim Shah, from the Baylor College of Medicine, stated that we are unconsciously envious of the ‘winning team’ doing well. Therefore, the team which is less likely to win is more appealing to those who don’t have any stakes in the game. This could be why people I speak to often want (or wanted) Manchester United to lose: they had the potential to have the better players, train them well, and beat other teams who did not. But after some of the results this season, perhaps people will be rooting for them as the underdog against teams like Crystal Palace and Wolves! 

This goes hand in hand with people wanting the world to be just. Money is power. When we look at the American Democrat Primaries which occurred in 2016 and are coming up again soon, in the race for the 2020 US elections, underdogs are, ironically, in a position of strength. Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders are the most likely candidates to make it through to the Democratic Convention in July next year. But at the end of the day, when we look at the 2016 results for the US elections, could we say that Donald Trump was the underdog? Did people want to get rid of the established Clinton dynasty and vote for the Orange Menace? It’s a psychological conundrum for me, but who knows how peoples’ minds work…

But there’s still the question of why would we want to see a team losing. Is it a case of masochism, where we want to inflict pain upon ourselves? I’ve spoken at length in the past about supporting Bafana Bafana and how I keep on being disappointed (and how this relates to South Africans; is being a South African citizen who is dedicated to democracy considered an underdog?). Or do we just want the world to be fair? Now I hate using that word because pupils at school use it all the time to justify why they should not write a test or do homework or get any kind of punishment. But it seems it could be an evolutionary trait.  

In another paper, Joseph Vandello, a colleague of Goldschmied didn’t just use sport. In Slate Magazine, it gives the example where Vandello cites a study from Nature, which seems as though the idea of fairness in not specific to humans. It shows that “brown capuchin monkeys reject unequal rewards for the same trained behavior: When one monkey was given a piece of cucumber and another received a delicious grape, the first became uncooperative”. 

So where does that leave us? In a political world where we are constantly shown that the more powerful individuals (including companies) we seem to always root for the underdog. But often we state, “Better the devil you know”. Is our affinity for the underdog just something that is a façade, a way in which we make ourselves feel better about why we want a different person to win? For example, why have ‘mom and pop’ stores gone out of business? Surely, if most of us see that there are injustices in world and we want the underdog to succeed, we wouldn’t buy from Pick n Pay or Woolworths. We would go to our local grocer and florist, bakers and butchers. But we don’t (or at least I don’t, if I’m being honest). We also mostly vote for the bigger political parties who can make a more ‘significant’ impact on the political front, where minority parties are almost always side-lined. Maybe when we consider supporting the underdog, the proverbial David, we should be consistent. Or perhaps this phenomenon is just limited to our loyalities on the sports field.  

We’ve just come out from our month of chaggim, from Rosh Hashanah to Simchat Torah. We’ve celebrated the birth of the world and the beauty of the Torah. But as Jews, we are societal minnows. We have most often been on the fringes, the side-lined people. But we still celebrate our Jewishness and we still keep on rooting for our team through thick and thin. However, we also need to root for those others who are on the outskirts of society, those who have not had the chance to reach the level that the ‘bigger teams’ have. Let’s support all the underdogs of society and create a more equal, fair and just world, for now and for the future. 

To download the November issue of the Chronicle, click  here

To read the editor’s column for this month click here

To read the most read story in the October issue, click here

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