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Underdog mentality a motivational disadvantage, study says

Underdog mentality a motivational disadvantage, study says

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The New Orleans Saints were the sentimental favorite at the Super Bowl. But did the team's underdog status provide the motivational boost that led to its win?

The New Orleans Saints were the sentimental favorite this week at the Super Bowl. But did the team's underdog status provide the motivational boost that led to its 31-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts?

According to researchers at Ohio State University: Probably not.

Turning a popular theory on its tail, the researchers found that members of a team will work harder when pitted against competitors of lower status -- not when competing against a group with a higher rank. The study is published in the current issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

“It seems surprising to many people that the high-status team has more motivation, but it really makes sense," said Robert Lount, an author of the report. "The higher-ranked group has more to lose if they don’t compare well against a lower-status group. But if you’re the lower-status group and lose to your superior rival, nothing has changed.”

College students, the study participants, were asked to complete simple tasks, such as crossing out the vowels in a string of letters during a fixed time period. The students were told they were competing with students from other schools. In fact, the logos of the rival colleges were printed on their worksheets.

When it was clear they were competing against a lower-ranked school -- based on U.S. News and World Report listings -- students completed 30 percent more than when their competitors hailed from higher-ranked institutions.

Lount, who conducted the study with Nathan Pettit of Cornell University, had a word of advice for coaches of more highly-regarded teams set to compete against those ranked lower. “It would make sense to highlight this favored status to your players,” he 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.”

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Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure