In English, we call someone or something the “underdog” when they are the ones with less personal power than the other party involved in a situation. Because they have less power, they are thought to be at the disadvantage, have smaller status, have smaller chance of succeeding and are perceived to be the victim in the situation.
Human beings naturally support and root for the underdog. There are many reasons for this. For example, many of us feel vulnerable in the world. Many of us feel like we are at the disadvantage and like the odds are stacked against us. This makes us identify with the underdog and internalize them. Therefore, rooting for the underdog feels like rooting for ourselves. People love unexpected triumph. We love when people win against the odds. It gives us hope for ourselves.
Another reason is that power tends to threaten us. When someone has power, we fear that they might use that power to oppose our own best interests. We feel like they don’t need us. It also makes us feel less than them, all of which hurts our self-concept. So, we tend to want to see people with power lose that power. On the other hand, when someone does not have power, we feel both empathy and sympathy for them. We feel they need us and this enhances the sensation of there being an emotional bond between us and them. We feel morally good about ourselves for supporting them and we feel subconsciously above them. It makes us feel both right and good to support someone who is at the disadvantage. This boosts our self-concept. So, we tend to want to see people without power, gain it… just not too much of it that it then threatens us.
Another reason is that we subconsciously experience pleasure at the misfortune of others when envy is involved. We tend to envy the person who has more power, advantage, status, success and is perceived to be the victor. When we see that person lose their power, advantage, status or success, it decreases the pain we feel about what we lack and about our self-concept. We perceive the situation to be fairer, regardless of whether this is the case or not.
On top of all of this, one of the defining features of our species is care. This includes support for those of our species that are disadvantaged. A direct affront to survival of the fittest, we care for and support our weak, starting with our completely relationally dependent babies. It is not common to see the young, disabled, ill, weak or old of other species being picked off by predators, attacked by their own kind or left to die. When we hear this, we feel horrified. It’s not how we do things and it’s not what we believe is good and right to do. This species trait played a role in our species evolution. It is wired into us on a biological level.
In principle, there is nothing “wrong” with our natural affinity for the underdog. What we need to be aware of is that our natural affinity for the underdog leads to a kind of underdog effect whereby we become blind and fall prey to some pretty big shadows. And today, I’m going to list some of them for you.
First, we know that people root for the underdog. We can exploit this tendency. The fact that people root for the underdog gives us huge incentive to come across as the underdog in any situation where we want people to get behind us and support us. A person can act like the one who is at the disadvantage and is the victim, regardless of whether this is actually the case or not and others will fall for it. Any of you with siblings have probably experienced this one in action. A younger sibling acts the villain and initiates some kind of misbehavior. The older one, who is actually the victim in the situation, reacts to it. The younger one starts crying and yelling to come across like the victim to the parents in the house, because they know the parents will see them as the underdog. And they do. The parent comes in the room, immediately sides with the perceived underdog, which is the younger child, and takes action to guard the younger child and punish the older child without any attempt to assess what is actually going on. No doubt some of you have experienced the younger sibling taking a break between sobs to triumphantly stick their tongue out at the older one. This child knows they have won. And they have done so by exploiting this tendency in people to support the underdog. You may feel this kind of childhood behavior is fairly benign. But take that same behavior on into adulthood.
This behavior becomes a manipulation tactic that people use to try to stay safe socially and to try to gain the support of others. It is especially exploited when someone is trying to gain support for themselves at the same time as rally people against someone else. This is when the underdog effect becomes your biggest ally in your game of victim control. You can use the underdog effect to deceive others. You can do this to such a degree in fact that you can have all the power in a situation and you can do all kinds of terrible things to someone else in that situation, but as long as you don’t appear to others to have that power and as long as you appear to be at the disadvantage, you can deceive other people into seeing the other guy as the top dog and the bad guy. And so, people start to enable and support the person that is actually creating the problem. In layman’s terms, they unknowingly have been deceived into supporting the villain and going against the true victim in a situation.
So that you can get a clearer idea about this dynamic, I’ll give you an example. Joelle just recently moved into an intentional community. The intentional community was started by Tegan. Tegan is a healer by trade and is for lack of a better word, the matriarch of the intentional community. Joelle doesn’t like authority and thinks that everyone should be on equal ground. As a result, she immediately started getting into power struggles with Tegan. She started triangulating other community members against her, arriving to community meetings late, refusing to do the tasks that Tegan assigned her, taking every opportunity to compete with Tegan’s knowledge about healing, helping herself to Tegan’s essential oils, asserting that she had something better to do when she was invited by Tegan to socialize, and giving Tegan ultimatums regarding her needs.
One day, when Tegan was hosting a healing retreat, she was called away to take an emergency telephone call. When she came back to the group, Joelle had taken the liberty to take over the group and was answering questions and leading them through a yoga exercise. Later that night, Tegan, who was furious and at the end of her rope, confronted Joelle about her usurping behavior in front of the whole community. Joelle played the underdog card.
First, Joelle started tearing up and denied that she was in any power struggle with Tegan and in fact, asserted her deep respect for Tegan instead. In other words, she started by actively gaslighting. Then, she went on to explain how she had taken over the group as a favor to Tegan and thought she would be grateful for it because she had left them high and dry. And then she started crying about how hard it is to live in the community because she is new and doesn’t know her place yet and is always doing the wrong things by Tegan. The tactic worked. Most of the community members started feeling empathy for Joelle and started feeling like maybe Tegan was being unfairly hard on her. When she saw this new tactic working, Tegan snapped and yelled at her for pulling a victim control drama. But that only served to hand Joelle the win. The rest of the community members defended Joelle against Tegan and some of them started seeing Tegan in a different, more negative light. Joelle had succeeded in acting like the underdog to the degree that not only did she get away with everything she was doing to Tegan, she also managed to manipulate Tegan’s intentional community out from under her as well and rally them around her instead. Of course, they were all pawns in a power game that was just won by Joelle against Tegan. But they were too blinded by the underdog effect to see it. They thought they were protecting Joelle, the underdog and victim from Tegan, the top dog and villain. When the reality was the other way around. To learn more about the way that people use the dynamic of victimhood to their advantage, watch my videos titled: The Victim Control Dynamic (Escaping Control Drama in Relationships). And Anger and The false Villain Dynamic.
The underdog effect enables us to let ourselves and other people off the hook, when we and they should not be let off the hook. And at the same time, put all the pressure and accountability on the shoulders of whomever we perceive to be the one with more power. There is a tendency for people to give others a pass when we perceive them to be at the disadvantage, weaker, have smaller status, have smaller chance of succeeding and/or when we perceive them to be the victim. We don’t hold them accountable for what they do or don’t do. We have a soft spot for perceived weakness. It is a psychological fact that the more mistakes someone makes, the more likable they are perceived to be. And the weaker someone is perceived to be, the more people tend to develop a protective affinity for them. Because of this, we feel compassion for them and relieve them of accountability in a situation. We put all the pressure and accountability on the other guy. And we enable dysfunction when we do this.
So that you see what I mean, I’ll give you an example: Miriam is married to Dirk. Dirk is a very aggressive man with a rage streak. He regularly beats his kids. Miriam is terrified of conflict and doesn’t feel capable of leaving Dirk and living out in the world alone. So, she stays and tries to make her kids behave in a way that prevents Dirk from getting angry. Most people will give Miriam a pass because of her weakness and fear and lack of character strength. But her actions had severe negative impact on her children. She enabled and acted as an accessory to their abuse for years. She was a bystander. She kept them in an unsafe environment. She actively supported and maintained dysfunction to the detriment of everyone involved.
I’m going to ask you the following questions and I want you to seriously think about them: Is someone accountable for their weakness? For their limits? Is someone accountable for their lack of personal power? For the character strength they lack? For their failures? For their mistakes? Or are these things an automatic pass?
If the answer is yes, then people will keep using them as an excuse both for what they do and for what they fail to do. We have to seriously consider this because there are VERY real consequences for these things. We can definitely have compassion for someone who hurts other people with these behaviors. But should that absolve them from their responsibility and accountability and should it absolve them from the consequences of their actions or inactions? Consider that to take responsibility for one’s own weakness and limits and mistakes is to not put oneself in a situation in the first place where that weakness or limit or mistake is going to have real consequences for oneself or others.
All too often, we fall into the trap of letting a person off the hook (who is the one that is actually accountable) because they are perceived as weaker and therefore the underdog. And with that, we fall into the trap of placing the accountability on literally any other person around him or her that is stronger, more capable and who seems to have more power.
- The underdog effect can cause us to run the risk of making the people around us and our own human society weak. If other people’s power threatens us to the degree that we want people to stay just powerless enough to not be a threat to us, we keep other people down. We keep them small. If we experience pleasure when people who are at the advantage experience misfortune, we subconsciously wish for each other to experience hardship and we slow the progression and advancement of our own species. If we enable and defend weakness, lack of character strength and failure, we are ensuring that it will not only continue, it will grow. If we fail to see other people’s power and fail to reflect it to them, we will fail to help them to step into their power. We are condemning them to powerlessness. If we see the person who lacks power as the automatic good guy, there will always be incentive to stay the victim, to stay powerless or at the very least, feign powerlessness and victimhood as a manipulative tactic. If we only identify with and internalize the underdog, we will remain disconnected from and ignorant of the aspect of ourselves that is more powerful and is at the advantage. The underdog effect can cause us to act as an oppositional force to our own expansion, the personal expansion of others and the expansion of society. It can cause us to thwart our own progress as well as the progress of others.
So when you root for the underdog, just make sure that the underdog effect doesn’t get the better of you!