Listen: Radiolab, The Underdog, Britt Daniel, and Malcolm Gladwell

WNYC’s Radiolab is almost always intriguing in the way that they mix the philosophical, the scientific and cultural.  Jab Abumrad and Robert Krulwich discuss and debate, turning over ideas and coming up with stories.  It’s an entirely organic approach that relies of multiple voices to create narratives.  And it’s the voice itself that is at the center of Radiolab’s appeal.  Abumrad’s voice is at once curious and empathetic.  He and Krulwich draw the listener in with their own brand of cerebral enthusiasm about each topic.
The show’s newest episode tackles the subject of games and focuses on the idea of the “underdog.”  It was a compelling hour of radio, right up my proverbial alley.
Four out of five people root for the underdog.
It’s interesting to consider who those other 20% of the population are. During the show, they interviewed Malcolm Gladwell.  A highly-praised author who describes trends and social phenomena in an accessible way, I have been a fan of Gladwell’s writing for years. A perfectionist who probes through the darkness of social thought and human behavior, with a fondness for numbers, Gladwell has written numerous best-selling books since 2005’s The Tipping Point.  The most telling aspect of Gladwell’s interview: he does not believe sports games are stories, but contests.  He also hates luck. He thinks of himself as a “favorite” not an “underdog.”  Gladwell grew up in a small town in Ontario was always used to being the best in school, where his peers’ parents had rarely gone to college.  Gladwell “hates when the high-probability winners lose.”  In Outliers, Gladwell spends a great deal of time explaining how some of the biggest success stories in our culture, from Bill Gates to the Beatles, were products of an environment which pushed them into a place where their probability for success was heightened, in part because of the amount of time they devoted to their craft (the “10,000 hour” rule) and in part because of pure luck and circumstance (Bill Gates happened to live very close to the University of Washington and it’s computer lab, where he spent countless hours as a 10th grader, investigating how computers worked and how to work with programming.)  Gladwell’s studies are fascinating because they seek to put “genius” into context, by looking for parallels and environmental factors.
Though it is a huge generalization, it might be fair to say that Gladwell’s life has usually placed him as “the exception.”  His parents were highly educated while his peers were the children of farmers.  Growing up in London, then moving to is father was an English professor and his Jamaican-born mother was a therapist.  It may not be shocking that the highest-performing students are attracted to the dominant athletes and less-able to tolerate cheering for the lower-performing teams.  We look for mirrors of ourselves in the sports that we follow, in the players that become our heroes.  It also makes sense that those who study outcomes are often annoyed by the tendency of the masses to believe in the wrong, or misleading information.  Today, there are two very distinct camps of baseball followers: 1) those who follow baseball through the traditional statistics; and 2) those who embrace the advanced metrics, which often oppose the traditional ways of evaluating player performance.  One thing both baseball fans have in common: they can be happy when the Pittsburgh Pirates finally make the playoffs.
Q. Why do 80% of us root for the underdog?
In my opinion, these are some of the reasons:
  1. We love sports because they are unpredictable. When the unexpected happens, it confirms our wish for anything to be possible in life.
  2. We love seeing overly confident, sometimes arrogant, teams and individuals lose.  We want everyone to be humble and appreciate their victories, rather than expect them.
  3. We want games to be close.  When they become uneven, or lopsided, we lose interest.  The more expected a game becomes, the less drama is created.
  4. We want to believe in a level playing field and fairness.  When one team dominates, it becomes clear that there is not always a level playing field.
This past June, the Los Angeles Times reported on a Japanese study of infants, in an articled titled, “Even Babies Prefer the Underdog, Psychologists Say.”  The results of the experiments further emphasize the “very early cognitive ability of humans to sense and respond to aggression with preference for the “victim,” a building block for sympathetic behavior that is a core element of social, cooperative animals.”
The narrative of “overdogs” and “underdogs” is so prevalent in the way we absorb sports because it is simple and taps into that deep desire for fairness.  The need to make that “contest” as Gladwell and many others frame a sports game into a “story.”  We want stories of impossible comebacks and of unbelievable surprise victories.  An ode to the underdog, courtesy of Britt Daniel, follows.  Daniel, leader of the band Spoon, wrote a song on his 2007 album Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga called “The Underdog” (the song was produced with Jon Brion‘s masterful touch).  I love the song for its sentiment as well as for the contagious and celebratory sound.  The lyrics are below:

Picture yourself in the living room
Your pipe and slippers set out for you
I know you think that it ain’t too far

But I, I hear the call of a lifetime ring
Felt the need to get up for it
Oh, you cut out the middleman
Get free from the middleman

You got no time for the messenger
Got no regard for the thing
That you don’t understand
You got no fear of the underdog
That’s why you will not survive

I wanna forget how conviction fits
But can I get out from under it?
Can I cut it out of me?

It can’t all be wedding cake
It can’t all be boiled away
I try but I can’t let go of it
Can’t let go of it

‘Cause you don’t talk to the water boy
And there’s so much you could learn
But you don’t want to know
You will not back up an inch ever
That’s why you will not survive

The thing that I tell you now
It may not go over well
Oh, and it may not be photo op
In the way that I spell it out

But you won’t hear from the messenger
Don’t wanna know about something
That you don’t understand
You got no fear of the underdog
That’s why you will not survive

In an interview with The Onion AV club from July, 2007, Daniel explains that the song is addressed to “the big guy in the government, and trying to tell him about some things he didn’t seem to be aware of. I just think that’s a pretty arrogant group of liars we’ve got up there, and they don’t really consider the abilities of their opponents.”  Daniel also points out that he “has been the underdog,” Though Spoon is about as recognizable as any indie-rock name in the music universe, and would accurately be framed as “The Overdog” at this point in time, Daniel was 30 years-old before Spoon’s album Girls Can Tell made waves and received some notice outside of Austin, Texas.  For the first thirty years of his musical life, Daniel was developing his sound.   Daniel’s father, a neurosurgeon, kept a collection of classic guitars and was a devotee of The Beatles and the Rolling Stones.  Between ages 18 and 30, Daniel’s musical experiments were a series of starts and stops, with bands around the University of Texas and the musical-rich community of Austin.  Had Britt Daniel not sewn his musical roots in Austin, maybe he gives up on the dream before Spoon is ever born.

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