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Sensitivity to the Changing Fortunes of Others

March 25, 2012

By Scott T. Allison and Athena Hensel

People are highly sensitive to changing fortunes.  We monitor our own changing fortunes, of course, but we are also very sensitive to the shifting fortunes of others.  We want to know who’s doing better and who’s doing worse than they were before.  Is Obama’s approval rating going up or down?  Is China’s economy still growing rapidly?  Are public schools in decline?  Is my friend’s health improving?

We’re drawn to changes in our social environment because they may have implications for our own well-being, or because we find those changes to be a source of drama or entertainment (Kim et al., 2008).  We are especially dazzled by unexpected changes in fortunes – the triumphs of obscure underdogs and the failures of established powerhouses (Vandello, Goldschmied, & Richards, 2007).

With the NCAA basketball tournament soon reaching a crescendo, conversations at the electronic watercoolers — Facebook and Twitter — are focusing on the changing fortunes of various teams.  Ohio University, for example, is this year’s surprise success in the tournament.  Earlier the twitterverse exploded with Duke University’s surprising exit at the hands of unheralded Lehigh University.  Even teams that keep winning, such as UNC Chapel Hill, are said to have experienced a change in fortune if their star player becomes injured unexpectedly.

The labels we assign to teams such as Ohio and Lehigh tend to reflect our observations of their changing fortunes.  Historically unsuccessful teams that finally enjoy some success are said to be plucky underdogs, up-and-coming programs, rising upstarts, and Cinderella stories (Allison & Goethals, 2011).  We seem to have fewer labels for fallen giants.  We briefly revel in their misfortune, as befitting our schadenfreudian tendencies, but our focus is usually more on celebrating the unexpected successes of the downtrodden.

Changing fortunes can result in changing categorical labels.  Gonzaga University’s sustained success in basketball has expelled them from the category of underdog.  Butler University’s back-to-back appearances in the final championship game placed them on a strong trajectory toward top dog status, but the school’s relatively poor year this past season may have put their graduation from underdog standing on hold.  Sometimes we just aren’t sure whether a team meets the criteria for underdog status, and when a team is in category limbo we may become especially attentive to cues that will pull them into one grouping or another.

Whereas our categorization of teams into underdog or top dog groups would seem to depend on their history of success, a change in that categorization would appear to depend on the direction that a team is heading and whether the team has sustained that directional change.

Let’s first look at the history variable.  No team better fit the underdog prototype than did the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team.  The Soviet Union had won every gold medal since 1960 and the U.S. was a predictable flop during those years. Stunningly, the 1980 U.S. team defeated the Soviets to win the gold medal, but the Americans had been entrenched underdogs for so long that no one dared to suggest that their change in fortune was anything more than an aberration.   The dismal U.S. performance at the subsequent Olympic hockey competitions confirmed their continued status as underdogs.

In some areas of human judgment, the direction of change appears to matter more than one’s absolute position.  For example, people are happier when their 3 dollars grows to 5 dollars than when their 8 dollars shrinks to 6 dollars (Kahneman & Tversky, 1979).  Similarly, we’re more attracted to people who dislike us but are starting to warm up to us than we are to people who like us but are beginning to criticize us (Aronson & Linder, 1965).  Sensitivity to direction of change is high in these contexts.

But the direction of change would appear to matter less in our practice of labeling people.  Our categorizations of people into underdog and top dog groups are glued tightly in place, especially in the sporting world.  Even during lean years, baseball’s New York Yankees are viewed as behemoths. Duke, the UNC Chapel Hill, and Kentucky have enjoyed so many decades of sustained success in basketball that it would take decades of futility for their top dog labels to wear off.

Outside the world of sports, categorical changes are volatile and more permanent. Consider the case of MySpace, which a decade ago was the unquestioned king of social media.  MySpace had no rivals and was firmly entrenched as the top dog when Facebook took the social media world by storm and quickly rendered MySpace irrelevant.  Almost overnight in the business world, a David can beat a Goliath and there is no question that Goliath will never get up again.  Google+ is currently trying, without much success, to do to Facebook what Facebook did to MySpace.  If Google+ fails, it will be yet another David we’ll never hear from again.

Other corporate examples abound:  In the mobile phone industry, the BlackBerry quickly went from being cool and hip to becoming a dinosaur thanks to the cooler and hipper iPhone.  Sometimes top dogs fall, not because of the new top dog on the block, but because several hungry underdogs eat into their business.  Crocs shoes – those multicolored rubber clogs – came and went because cheaper knock-offs appeared on the market.

Whereas no one gives MySpace or Blackberry much of a chance of regaining their top dog status, there is always plenty of hope for individual athletes or sports teams to rebound from a downturn.  The Pittsburgh Pirates have suffered 19 consecutive losing seasons, the longest streak in North American professional sports history.  In a non-sporting business environment the Pirates’ survival prospects would be bleak indeed, but every year brings new hope for the lowly in athletics.

And speaking of hope for the underdog, the story of Jeremy Lin is a fascinating one.  Deemed a marginal player from Harvard University, Lin was cut from two NBA teams and was languishing at the end of the New York Knicks bench for a long time before his coach, out of desperation, brought him into a game on February 5, 2012.  He stunned everyone by scoring 25 points and leading the Knicks to victory.  His greatness on the court continued game after game, and “Linsanity” was born – fans were erupting into a Beatlemania-like frenzy whenever Lin touched the ball.

Not surprisingly, Lin has been unable to sustain his phenomenal level of performance. Linsanity turned into Lin over his head.  Perhaps the fragility of underdog success is what makes that success so very special to us.  Cinderella may have lived happily ever after, but most sporting underdogs only enjoy the Andy Warhol fifteen minutes of fame before they retreat and ultimately disappear from our radar screens.  We revel in their changing fortunes for the better, but we fully expect that change to be an ephemeral one.

Perhaps we are so fascinated by others’ changing fortunes because they engender such mixed feelings in us.  We enjoy the success of others (Cialdini et al., 1976), especially underdogs, but too much success leads to a peculiar mixture of admiration, envy, and resentment.  We have competing desires for both a level playing field and great heroes to emerge who separate themselves from that field.  Changing fortunes excite and entertain us, but we also crave comforting stability in our social environments, too.  This assortment of emotions and motives may be the engine that drives our sensitivity to the changing fortunes of others.


Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2011).  Heroes: What They Do and Why We Need Them.  New York:  Oxford University Press.

Aronson, E., & Linder, D. (1965). Gain and loss of esteem as determinants of interpersonal attractiveness.  Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 1, 156-171.

Cialdini, R. B., Borden, R. J., Thorne, A., Walker, M. R., Freeman, S., & Sloan, L. R. (1976).Basking in reflected glory: Three (football) field studies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34 366-375.

Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1979). Prospect theory: An analysis of decision under risk. Econometrica, 12, 263-291.

Kim, J., Allison, S. T., Eylon, D., Goethals, G., Markus, M., McGuire, H., & Hindle, S. (2008). Rooting for (and then Abandoning) the Underdog.  Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 38, 2550-2573.

Vandello, J. A., Goldschmied, N., & Richards, D. A. R. (2007). The appeal of the underdog. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33, 1603-1616.


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