March Madness underdog picks are popular, but are they smart?

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EDDIE PELLS, AP National Writer
March 18, 2015

If you got that warm-'n-fuzzy feeling the weekend Lehigh beat Duke or the year N.C. State socked Phi Slama Jama or the time Butler almost did it, you are not alone.

The science shows, again and again, that we can't resist pulling for the teams called the Anteaters (that's UC Irvine). Or for the UABs of the world to upend the UCLAs. For the time-tested crowd pleaser, the No. 12 seed, and for anyone else with the label 'underdog' when March Madness rolls around.

About a dozen studies over the past 25 years have shown, in one way or another, that we, as sports fans, are inexorably drawn to the team with the odds stacked against it.

"It's the prominent narrative in sports," said Nadav Goldschmied of University of San Diego, who collaborated on one of the studies.

This penchant runs counter to almost everything else we're wired to think. Scientific studies show people want to be associated with success and that our self-esteem grows when we're part of the "in" crowd. Walk one well-dressed job candidate through the door, then follow him up with a schlub, and the studies show the majority of us favor the person who appears more attractive, almost regardless of their credentials.

But take that same dynamic into a sporting contest, where it's a scraggly No. 14 seed against a polished No. 3, and the perceptions change.

One of Goldschmied's studies had people watch a basketball game between two relatively unknown European teams after reading different write-ups about the rivalry. One group was led to believe Team A had won the last 15 meetings; the other was led to believe Team B had won all those games. Who they rooted for tilted based on who they considered the underdog.

Furthermore, in both cases, the team perceived as the underdog was viewed as the team giving more effort with less ability.

"That's just the story we tell ourselves," Goldschmied said. "We don't have to look too deep to figure it out."

One minor detail: It's not always true.

Another study conducted by an Ohio State professor showed that groups that felt they had more to lose actually tried harder, which basically tears apart the whole theory that the Lafayettes, Eastern Washingtons and Belmonts of the world will be laying more on the line this week than Kentucky, Kansas and Wisconsin.

In this study, college students were asked to perform a simple task, and were told a group of students from another specific college was doing the same work.

In the studies where one of the competing schools was listed appreciably higher in the U.S. News and World Report college rankings, the students from that school completed about 30 percent more of the task — in short, they worked harder — than when they were competing against a college ranked better or equal to theirs.

Conclusion: "The motivation gains were there when students felt their group's superior status was threatened," said the study's co-author, Robert Lount of Ohio State's Fisher College of Business.

"We came at it from a completely different angle, which was, we know we like to avoid losing more than we appreciate the joy of winning," Lount said. "If you think of your own team as favored, the team may work especially hard to make sure it comes out on top."

For all our love of underdogs, there are a few exceptions.

If a person has a specific rooting interest in a team — say the college they graduated from — they tend to favor that team, even if the team isn't the underdog.

It helps explain a study that found when big-conference teams are seeded better in games against mid-majors in the tournament, the Vegas point spread for the big-conference teams is inflated by an average of about two points a game.

"You look at the power conferences, and you see their following is much stronger than those of the smaller schools," said the study's co-author, Jim Lackritz, a statistics expert at San Diego State. "People put their money where their hearts are and that drives the line up."

All of which could serve as good advice for people picking against point spreads over the next few weeks.

The majority of us, though, will fill out brackets — no point spreads involved — based on feel and feeling. Many will pay scant attention to the fact that double-digit seeds have won a mere 41 of 172 games during the opening week — less than 24 percent — over the past five years.

Seems like more, doesn't it?

Well, we're wired to remember it that way.

Quick quiz: Who won the fight at the end of the first "Rocky" movie?

Answer: Apollo Creed.

But in a study Goldschmied is currently conducting, he said a majority of those asked answered "Rocky."

"We will bend our memory," Goldschmied said. "We have forced our memory to change just to fit the underdog story. It's because of the underdog mode in all of us."

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