The Psychology of Rooting for the Guy With the (Fake) Dead Girlfriend

Reading the scholarly literature on the power of a good underdog story, in light of the Manti Te'o hoax

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AP Photo/Joe Raymond

TO THE NAKED EYE, IT MAY APPEAR THAT: While it's still unclear whether Manti Te'o was the perpetrator or the victim of his dead-girlfriend hoax, there's little question that until Wednesday night, Te'o had what the seminal Deadspin article calls "the most heartbreaking and inspirational story of the college football season."

BUT ACCORDING TO SOME PEOPLE WHO THOUGHT REALLY HARD ABOUT THIS: Morbid as it sounds, the fact that people believed Manti Te'o had a girlfriend who died young of cancer may have been a crucial factor in how he got so popular in the first place.

While each of Notre Dame's how-did-they-pull-it-off wins further cemented Te'o's on-field legacy and ultimately put him on the Heisman shortlist, it was the uniquely heartbreaking aspect of his off-the-field story that turned him from a football prodigy to a legend. As NBC Sports gushed on Dec. 29:

In a 48 hour span, he lost his girlfriend to her battle with leukemia and his grandmother. Still, Te'o found strength with his teammates, and in retrospect the game he played against Michigan State—where he filled the stat sheet up with 12 tackles, one TFL, a fumble recovery and two pass breakups—was just tremendous.

Talented, morally upstanding linebacker leads old Notre Dame back to the pinnacle of football glory while still grieving over the death of his beloved? If it were a novel, Te'o's story would be eye-rollingly cheesy. But when the saga unfolded in news outlets nationwide, Te'o's harrowing yet inspiring tale became a real-life underdog story for the ages.

Key word: Underdog.

Underdog stories—that is, stories that focus on a determined individual succeeding despite the improbabilities and hardships that stand in his or her way—have a powerful way with audiences. So powerful, in fact, that according to a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research in 2009, they've actually become one of the marketing industry's secret weapons. As explained in "The Underdog Effect: The Marketing of Disadvantage and Determination through Brand Biography,"

Underdog narratives are often delivered to consumers through the rhetorical device of a brand biography, an unfolding story that chronicles the brand's origins, life experiences, and evolution over time in a selectively constructed story. Many contemporary brand biographies contain underdog narratives which highlight the company's humble beginnings, hopes and dreams, and noble struggles against adversaries. Nantucket Nectars' label informs us that they started "with only a blender and a dream," while brands such as Google, Clif Bar, HP, and Apple profile the humble garages in which they began.

In an experiment to find out just how potently likeable a good underdog story is, the researchers asked test groups to identify and discuss the underdog qualities of these four figures: Paris Hilton, Rocky Balboa, Harry Potter, a homeless man, and Donald Trump. Using their feedback on what made characters like Harry Potter and Rocky "underdogs," the researchers came up with a two-pronged working definition of "underdog": More than just being the party "expected to lose," the underdog must have an external disadvantage plus passion and determination. (The researchers also developed a "parsimonious and reliable 18-item underdog scale" to use in their studies—which is awesome.)

The team then conducted an experiment in which participants were given a choice between two brands of chocolate. They were given written brand biographies that painted one chocolate company "top-dog" qualities—such as a background in the industry and a history of being favored to succeed in the market. The second chocolate company was given an underdog story that involved overcoming odds to bring its product to the market.

When asked which chocolate bar they would buy for themselves, more than 70 percent of respondents picked the underdog brand. Clearly, underdog stories are emotionally compelling enough to successfully sell even something as inconsequential as a chocolate bar. So when the already-lofty drama of college football gets imbued with a gut-wrenching story of triumph under dire circumstances, that's when the stuff of fan legend happens.

AND... ANYTHING ELSE? Yup. A study published by the Journal of Media Psychology studied the effects of attributing positive and negative qualities to athletes in sporting events. The study found that when people who were unfamiliar with speed skating watched speed-skating competitions, they could generally be relied on to root for the athlete assigned fictitious "heroic" qualities, and root against the athlete given fictitious "villainous" traits. The unfavorable qualities assigned to athletes included having a public-intoxication arrest, being ungracious and inconsiderate, and testing positive for performance-enhancing steroids. (Bad news for some other people in the news this week.)

Among the "heroic" qualities: "dedicating his performance to his mother" and "being gracious and considerate."

Te'o was an Eagle Scout and a Special Olympics volunteer; he called his opportunity to play college football at all "very humbling." Inspired Notre Dame fans even decided to "Wear a Lei for Manti" to a September game against Wake Forest to pay tribute to his grandmother after her death.

So by that logic, chances are that fans would have steadfastly rooted for Manti Te'o anyway, even if a dead girlfriend had never come into the picture at all. But...

AND THUS, WE CAN CONCLUDE THAT: ... A mere nice-guy linebacker is no match for a lovelorn nice-guy linebacker tragically tormented by untimely death—because whether it's true or completely invented, it's the underdog story that sells.