In spite of the Saints' come-from-behind victory Sunday, underdogs aren't actually more motivated to win. In fact, a new study finds the opposite is true, with favored teams working harder to beat lower-ranked competitors.
Makes sense, as the high-status team has more to lose. "If you're the lower-status group and lose to your superior rival, nothing has changed – it just reaffirms the way things are," said study researcher Robert Lount, assistant professor of management and human resources at Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business.
The results come from five studies of college students. Participants had to complete simple tasks, such as crossing out all the vowels they could in a string of words within a set period of time. They were told a group of students from another college were also completing the task.
Competing schools' logos were at the top of the worksheets, so participants knew the competition. Opposing colleges were similarly ranked, lower ranked, or higher ranked, than participants' school (based on U.S. News and World Report rankings).
The vowel-crossing race was on.
Students scored similarly when pitted against either higher-ranked or similarly ranked teams. The motivation seemed to kick in when Goliath took on David: Students completed about 30 percent more cross-outs when the competitor's logo belonged to lower-ranked schools than their superiors.
In one of the study experiments, students first wrote self-affirmations, group-affirmations, or no affirmations before the vowel-crossing task. When competing against lower-status schools, the "affirmed" students didn't do as well as those who didn't give themselves pats on the back.
Lount said the affirmations made students feel good about themselves or their groups and so they were less threatened and didn't feel the need to prove themselves.
"If you're a coach of a favored team, it would make sense to highlight this favored status to your players," Lount said. "Coaches should let players know that there’s a lot at stake in their game – they could lose their high status. That should be a big motivating factor for your team."
The findings are published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.