Paul L. Caron

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

The Underdog Effect: Low Expectations Increase Performance

Samir Nurmohamed (University of Pennsylvania, Wharton School), The Underdog Effect: When Low Expectations Increase Performance:

UnderdogExisting theory and research has documented the benefits of facing high expectations and the perils of encountering low expectations. This paper examines the performance effects of underdog expectations, defined as individuals’ perceptions that others view them as unlikely to succeed. Integrating theory and research on self-enhancement with psychological reactance, I predict that underdog expectations have the potential to boost performance through the desire to prove others wrong when others’ credibility is in question.

Studies 1 and 2 provide support for the positive relationship between underdog expectations and performance. Study 3 reveals support for the positive effect of underdog expectations on performance through the desire to prove others wrong. Study 4 demonstrates that these effects depend on the perceived credibility of observers: when observers’ expectations are seen as more credible, underdog expectations undermine performance (consistent with the Golem effect and self-fulfilling prophecy), but when observers’ expectations are viewed as less credible, underdog expectations boost performance (demonstrating the underdog effect).

My theory and results challenge the assumption that perceiving low expectations from others is always detrimental, and offer meaningful insights into why and when underdog expectations increase versus inhibit performance.

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