Siding with the Egg

By: Dr. Siamak Naficy, US Naval Postgraduate School and MAJ Joshua Russo, US Army


Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg.

  • Author Haruki Murakami, upon accepting the Jerusalem Prize for Literature1

About two months after 9/11, Osama bin Laden boasted to a group of supporters, "When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse."2 Not only did the weak horse turn out to be bin Laden's own, however, but bin Laden was also probably quite mistaken about popular psychology. Data from social psychology suggest that a majority of people consistently favor and identify with the "underdog," whether it be in politics or in sports, or even with shapes on a map.3 In one such example, when subjects were shown a map of Israel dwarfing the occupied Palestinian territories, they expressed greater support for the Palestinians, but when they were shown a map of the neighboring Arab countries dwarfing Israel, they expressed more support for Israel.

The underdog is colloquially defined as the one who is at a disadvantage in a contest or competition and therefore is expected to lose.4 This underdog exists, of course, in relation to another, the "top dog," who has the advantage of more resources and as such, is most likely to win. This rhetorical structure applies to many well-known stories. Tales of the underdog hero—as portrayed in popular Hollywood movies like Rocky and Star Wars, in books like The Lord of the Rings, and in sports narratives such as the 1980 US Olympic hockey team's defeat of the Soviet Union in the "Miracle on Ice"—have a broad appeal.5 Businesses and political candidates, US President Barack Obama among them, routinely position themselves as underdogs to take advantage of this psychological phenomenon.6 The underdog effect is not a uniquely American narrative, either.7 Stories about underdogs are found across cultures and religious texts—such as the Old Testament story of David and Goliath—and throughout history, such as Aesop's fable of the tortoise and the hare, from approximately the sixth century BCE.

(En)Countering the Underdog Narrative

George Washington was fighting the strongest military in the world, beyond all reason. That's what we're doing. Exactly.

  • Osama Hamdan (Hamas politburo member)8

How a conflict is framed and thus perceived, and who the players are supposed to be or are imagined to be, are as relevant to what people think about the fight as how it is fought. Robert Entman, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, defines framing as "the process of culling a few elements of perceived reality and assembling a narrative that highlights connections among them to promote a particular interpretation." 9 We know that political and security objectives cannot always be achieved through greater material or numbers. But data on possible psychological biases in favor of underdogs would suggest more: the use of military instruments of power—whether it be in the form of boots on the ground or bombs from the sky—can in fact strengthen the perceived deservedness of a comparatively weaker underdog adversary and amplify its narrative. The fact that disadvantaged entities might be motivated by this sense of righteous entitlement to fight on—and that third-party audiences might feel emotionally compelled to side with such groups—is crucial to both our understanding of human psychology and our capacity to craft coherent national security policies and their associated narratives.

Meanwhile, there is evidence to suggest that there is cross-cultural variation in the likelihood that an audience will favor underdogs. Underdog biases tend to be stronger for individuals who are from cultures in which underdog narratives are part of their national or group identity.10 Studies also indicate that there are boundaries to the underdog effect beyond which observers of the competition perceive the disadvantaged side no longer as an underdog but simply as a loser and undeserving of support.11 This would suggest that there is no simple "underdogma" phenomenon whereby people reflexively believe that whichever side they see as disadvantaged is therefore also more righteous. If this is the case, then it follows that counter-narratives can be crafted that (1) are tailored to possible cross-cultural affinities for an underdog biography, and (2) amplify the reasons that a disadvantaged side may have violated the requisite conditions of underdoggedness.

The Size of the Fight in the Dog

It's not the size of the dog in the fight; it's the size of the fight in the dog.

  • Unknown12

One explanation for underdog support and human psychological biases in favor of such entities is the rational calculation of one's own emotions. In other words, because an underdog's success is by definition unexpected, this may increase the excitement of rooting for the underdog (calculated by its likeliness to win or lose). In this way, rather than being strongly supportive of underdogs, people might instead actually be rooting against the dominant entities, an attitude captured by the sentiment, "My favorite baseball team is whoever is playing against the Yankees."

The data from social psychology seems to also suggest, however, that at least part of the reason people favor the underdog is our perceived sense of the underdog's "disadvantage." For example, students watching a taped basketball game not only rooted for whichever team they had been told was the underdog, but also attributed more "hustle, effort, heart, and wanting to win" to that team. In this way, people may favor the disadvantaged underdog because we want to help compensate for what we consider to be undeserved inequality. "If one contestant is outmatched for reasons that aren't his fault, that's unfair, and our sense of justice reaches out to fix it."13

According to marketing experts Anat Kienan, Jill Avery, and Neehu Paharia, "The biographies of underdog brands share two important narrative components: a disadvantaged position (they highlight a company's humble beginnings and portray it as being ‘outgunned' by bigger, better-resourced competitors) and a passion and determination to triumph against the odds." 14 Various studies in the fields of marketing and social psychology define underdogs similarly: a materially, socially, or physically disadvantaged entity that displays a "strong will or indefatigable spirit" during a competitive struggle.15 

In line with this reasoning, then, if the team (or group or individual) that is likely to lose is not disadvantaged, that side should no longer enjoy favoritism. Accordingly, when research subjects were told that a team was likely to lose and that it had a lot less money than the other team, they rooted for that team. But when they were told that a team was likely to lose even though it had a lot more money than the other team, they didn't much care who won.16 Disadvantage alone, then, is insufficient for observers to perceive a contender as an underdog. Stripping a disadvantaged opponent of its underdog status may require the crafting of counter-narratives that demonstrate the reasons that the opponent, though possibly disadvantaged in one or more domains, is not a true underdog deserving of support.

The current data suggest that these boundaries, or under-dog qualifiers, can be divided into two general categories: those that are dependent on the observer and those that are dependent on the perceived performance of the underdog. In other words, if one already identifies with one of the competitors, then that competitor's narrative status as underdog or top dog may not matter all that much. It is when one has no dog in the fight, so to speak, that an underdog narrative may become compelling. Unsurprisingly, the degree of sympathy and support offered to the underdog is often simply a function of the observer's vicarious self-serving motives.17 Relatively neutral observers are likely to feel sympathy for the underdog only when there is little negative personal consequence for doing so. Observers who strongly identify with the underdog—those who view themselves as players on the disadvantaged team—may be unswayed by the high personal risk their support engenders.18

In the world of Star Wars—a classic underdog narrative in popular culture—the question becomes whether it would be possible to convince Luke Skywalker and Han Solo not to join the Rebel Alliance. It would likely be harder to dissuade Luke Skywalker because he has the ideologue Obi-Wan Kenobi to recruit and mentor him, as well as personal reasons—such as the assassinations of his uncle and aunt by imperial stormtroopers—to identify against the Empire. (At least, Luke is told by Obi-Wan that storm troopers are responsible for the attack that killed his relatives.) But, what of Han Solo? It might be worth the time to consider why we accept the idea that a self-serving smuggler—who says he doesn't believe in "hokey religions" like the Jedi and calls Luke's assault against the Death Star not an act of "courage" but one of "suicide"—would end up joining Luke and the Rebel Alliance in the end.

A strong desire for fairness may also allow observers to justify a moral double standard when evaluating the actions of underdogs and top dogs.19 This double standard holds the top dog to the letter of the law, but it turns a blind eye to the occasionally unsavory behavior of the underdog. Thus Israel is a bully, if you see it primarily as the oppressor of Palestinians, or a victim, if you see it as facing persistent existential threats. Nevertheless, there is undoubtedly some threshold beyond which the relatively neutral observer, on the one hand, can no longer overlook the underdog's moral transgressions. Observers that strongly identify with the underdog, on the other hand, may have no such threshold.

The Palestinian resistance organization Hamas provides a good example of this double standard. In its recent 2014 war with Israel, Hamas may have damaged its own underdog-brand credibility in the eyes of many neutral observers. When compared to previous battlefield encounters with the Israeli Defense Force in 2008–2009 and 2012, Hamas's military wing performed impressively well in 2014. Yet despite its relative tactical success, widespread condemnation of alleged war crimes among regional and international audiences threatened to diminish Hamas's traditional underdog position and with it, an aura of deservedness.20 For most closely affiliated supporters of Hamas, however, the organization's conduct in the recent war probably needed no explanation or justification—these observers were sufficiently invested in the Hamas cause to remain convinced of its righteousness. For those not already committed to a side, however, damage to or loss of the underdog label can shift attitudes regarding its deservedness. It was this dilemma that arguably compelled the Hamas leadership to wage a media campaign of damage control in the aftermath of the war, in an attempt to restore underdog legitimacy with a larger audience.21

Underdog qualifiers that depend on the observer's perception of the disadvantaged team's performance comprise the second category. The underdog demonstrates its deservedness not only through its actions but also through its narrative. Underdogs must demonstrate passion, endurance, and "hustle" to be judged as deserving of support.22 If individuals or group members show a lack of effort, they are more likely to be regarded as losers.23 The perceived probability of underdog success in the competition is another qualifier. Although observers often overestimate the likelihood of success,24 underdogs "need to come close on occasion or at least show flashes of potential in order to merit support." 25 In one study, "participants showed the strongest rooting for the underdog team when it was unlikely—but not impossible—to prevail." 26 Finally, the underdog narrative must be negatively framed—the sympathetic protagonist struggling against the odds—in order to win support.27

The self-declared Islamic State (aka ISIS) has proven adept at portraying itself as a deserving underdog with impressive hustle. The group's combat footage highlights three themes: (1) smiling martyrdom-seekers who are ready and willing to sacrifice themselves for the cause; (2) hard-fighting foot soldiers who demonstrate tactical skill and grit; and (3) battlefield victories against ISIS's numerous better-supplied enemies, in which its fighters seize large quantities of weapons and equipment. The resultant underdog narrative is a strong one. In the face of a well-resourced international coalition, ISIS is not backing down. On the contrary, its sophisticated information operations not only convey battlefield competence and determination, but also suggest that the Islamic State has great future potential.28

Conclusion: Turning Underdogs into Losers

The guerilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win.

  • Henry Kissinger29

Embracing and perpetuating the status of the underdog assists groups in garnering support that would otherwise be unavailable to them. The indirect and tacit support underdogs receive from observers may be the very thing that allows them to continue their struggle. Usually this support comes from those who care less about the outcome or consequences of a struggle than they do about the qualities or attributes of the players involved. By disallowing the label of underdog for radical groups through targeted information campaigns, states can subvert sideline support for these extremist organizations.

Of course, clever communicators are aware of their audience and wield flexible and fluid narratives. An underdog always exists in relation to a top dog. As such, an underdog narrative may not always be advisable or possible. The fictional boxer Rocky Balboa may have been an underdog when compared to the champion, Apollo Creed, but he would be no underdog in a match with at least one of the authors of this paper. Likewise, in the Star Wars films, Luke Skywalker and the Rebel Alliance are the underdogs pitted against Darth Vader and the Galactic Empire, but would have been top dogs compared to, say, the Ewoks of Endor.30

ISIS's leaders appear to understand the group's various audiences well: their media operations are carefully calibrated for local, regional, and international consumption as well as for would-be constituents.31 The group's regionally oriented media content—arguably the most potent of its products—aims, in part, to inspire a particular slice of the neutral or partially invested observer population by promoting the status of ISIS as an underdog fighting a regional war against corrupt Middle Eastern regimes and wealthy (and corrupt) Western interventionists. Of course, when measured against the diverse array of Levantine Sunni jihadi groups—many of which also espouse violence and the reestablishment of a regional caliphate—ISIS is no underdog and even poses a lethal threat to some of these groups. This fact only underscores the potency of a well-framed and manipulated underdog narrative.

It is, of course, unrealistic to try to frame global powers like the United States as underdogs in irregular warfare. Strategic planners should instead consider crafting counter-narratives that tarnish the underdog image their extremist adversaries cultivate. It is to our advantage that many of the jihadi fighters who profess pious principles regularly ignore their own stated moral ideals. It may be possible to minimize the indirect support that ISIS and its ilk receive by attacking their appealing underdog image and recasting them as hypocrites and losers.

We have seen how tactical strikes such as those from predator drones can backfire in public opinion by making martyrs of their targets. Media campaigns that highlight the apostasy of violent jihadi groups—especially their leaders—may be a better way to erode the groups' attraction for new recruits. Disseminating accurate reports and images of revered leaders—sporting Rolex watches and committing rape and cold-blooded murder—can help shift their popular image from the idealized one of deserving underdogs fighting the good fight to the more realistic one of self-indulgent criminals ready to exploit their would-be supporters.32 No single technique will likely be sufficient to bring about this shift, of course, and it will be necessary to tailor-make these counter-narratives for specific audiences. For example, a particularly strong argument can be made by amplifying the stories of defectors. While some returning foreign fighters will no doubt seek to self-glorify by exaggerating their purported accomplishments, there are also those who leave because they have become disillusioned by their experiences. In exchange perhaps for a safe return or some other incentive, these voices can be instrumental in countering the narratives the jihadis use for foreign recruitment.

In addition, counter-narratives to discourage foreign recruits should highlight the fact that these fighters are routinely exploited by extremist leaders to settle local disputes rather than to pursue the regional or international goals that the recruits might have had in mind when they joined up. For instance, between 2005 and 2007, a cadre of suicide bombers in Iraq was used not against coalition troops but in small affairs targeting local tribes and groups. An Iraqi emir described the situation in a letter quoted in a 2008 Washington Post report.

George Washington

Potential suicide bombers were told by coordinators on the border that they could choose a suicide mission, which would kill 20 to 30 US-led troops or their supporters, the letter says. Yet a would-be bomber would then wait in the desert for months. "At the end he will be asked to do a small operation, such as murdering someone or blowing up a police car," the emir wrote. The foreigners would then become discouraged, he said, and return to their home countries.33

Such groups also routinely devour their own in other ways, either by arbitrarily meting out "justice" for undesirable actions or making sure would-be defectors publicly pay with their own lives.34 One 2014 report states that "ISIS has executed at least 120 of its own militants in the past three months, the majority of whom were foreign fighters trying to return home, according to a Syrian monitoring group." 35 Stories of treachery and the murder of recruits can be amplified and disseminated to effectively influence both foreign and local audiences.36

These are only a few examples of campaigns that could be designed to combat jihadis' "deserving underdog" narrative. It must be conceded, however, that these various examples still feel weak, paternalistic, and negative, especially when compared to the "positive" recruitment message from an Islamist warrior who appears, by virtue of his underdog status, to deserve respect and support. They all lack the empowering draw and broad arc of the ISIS story of standing "up against the world." Custom-made counter-narratives that are personalized to fit specific audiences will be stronger.

Meanwhile, the fact that the United States routinely perceives itself as the top dog, in terms of military capability and resources, versus adversaries that use asymmetric strategies may be counterproductive. In 480 BCE, to take one famous historical example, a resonant underdog narrative coalesced around the Greek victory over the Persian navy at Salamis. The Persians, whose trireme fleet was markedly superior to that of their opponents in terms of number of vessels, naval technology, and combat seamanship, exposed themselves to defeat by seeking to trap and overwhelm the Greeks in the confines of the Salamis straits. If US officials and strategic planners were more judicious in their selection of methods and instruments to execute their policies, the United States might smack less of a top dog throwing its weight around. For example, all things being equal, the United States, like the ancient Persians, fed certain insurgent narratives when it deployed heavy, armored units to Iraq and then lost dozens of technologically advanced tanks to improvised roadside bombs and accidental rollovers into canal ditches. In other words, perceiving and projecting oneself as a top dog has the potential to undermine strategy.

This is not to say that assuming the role of the inevitable winner is always inadvisable, but there are consequences and tradeoffs to doing so, and strategic postures and narratives must be crafted with such consequences in mind. Top dogs who persist in looking through the veil of their own narratives can find it difficult to appreciate the more discrete and subtle means that they may have at their disposal. ²

About the Author(s):

Dr. Siamak Naficy is a senior lecturer in the Defense Analysis department of the US Naval Postgraduate School.

Major Joshua Russo is a US Army officer and graduate student at the US Naval Postgraduate School.

  1. Haruki Murakami, "Always on the Side of the Egg," Haaretz, 17 February 2009: back up
  2. "Transcript of Bin Laden Videotape," NPR, 13 December 2001: back up
  3. For example, Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals, Heroes: What They Do and Why We Need Them (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); JongHan Kim et al., "Rooting For (and Then Abandoning) the Underdog," Journal of Applied Social Psychology 38, no. 10 (2008): 2550–73; Joseph A. Vandello, Nadav P. Goldschmied, & David A.R. Richards, "The Appeal of the Underdog," Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 33 (2007): 1603–16.go back up
  4. American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001), s.v. "underdog."go back up
  5. Rocky, directed by John G. Avildsen (Los Angeles: Chartoff-Winkler Productions, 1976) (us); Star Wars: A New Hope, directed by George Lucas (San Rafael, Calif.: Lucasfilm, 1977) (us); J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (New York: Ballantine Books, 1965); "The Miracle on Ice," Lake Placid Olympic Region, n.d.: back up
  6. "President Obama: America ‘Not Better Off' Today than Four Years Ago," ABC News, 3 October 2011: back up
  7. Neeru Paharia et al., "The Underdog Effect: The Marketing of Disadvantage and Determination through Brand Biography," Journal of Consumer Research 37 (2011): 775–90: back up
  8. Scott Atran, "God and the Ivory Tower," Foreign Policy, 6 August 2012:,1go back up
  9. Robert M. Entman, "Framing Bias: Media in the Distribution of Power," Journal of Communication 57, no. 1 (2007): 164.go back up
  10. Paharia et al., "The Underdog Effect"; Ioanna Ntampoudi, "The Greek ‘Underdog' Political Culture: An Anti-European Political Identity?" (paper presented at the Third Euroacademia International Conference, Lisbon, Portugal, 26–27 September 2014):'Underdog'_Political_Culture_An_anti-European_political_identitygo back up
  11. Scott T. Allison and Jeni L. Burnette, "Fairness and Preference for Underdogs and Top Dogs," in Social Decision Making: Social Dilemmas, Social Values, and Ethical Judgments, ed. Roderick M. Kramer, Ann E. Tensbrunsel, and Max H. Bazerman (New York: Psychology Press, 2009), 291–314; Kim et al., "Rooting For (and Then Abandoning) the Underdog"; Nadav P. Goldschmied and Joseph A. Vandello, "The Future Is Bright: The Underdog Label, Availability, and Optimism," Basic and Applied Social Psychology 34, no. 1 (2012): 34–43; Lee Phillip McGinnis and James W. Gentry, "Underdog Consumption: An Exploration into Meanings and Motives," Journal of Business Research 62, no. 2 (2009): 191–99. go back up
  12. This saying is commonly attributed to American author Mark Twain, but there is no verifiable source for it.go back up
  13. Vandello, Goldschmied, and Richards, "The Appeal of the Underdog," 1610.go back up
  14. Anat Kienan, Jill Avery, and Neeru Paharia, "Capitalizing on the Underdog Effect," Harvard Business Review (November 2010): back up
  15. McGinnis and Gentry, "Underdog Consumption," 194, emphasis added; Vandello, Goldschmied, and Richards, "The Appeal of the Underdog"; Goldschmied and Vandello, "The Future Is Bright." go back up
  16. Vandello, Goldschmied, and Richards, "The Appeal of the Underdog."go back up
  17. Allison and Burnette, "Fairness and Preference for Underdogs and Top Dogs," 302.go back up
  18. Kim et al., "Rooting For (and Then Abandoning) the Underdog," 2565–68; Allison and Burnette, "Fairness and Preference for Underdogs and Top Dogs," 298–99.go back up
  19. Allison and Burnette, "Fairness and Preference for Underdogs and Top Dogs," 305–7.go back up
  20. William Booth, "Amnesty International Says Hamas Committed War Crimes, Too," Washington Post, 26 March 2015: back up
  21. Several al-Monitor articles discuss the post-conflict implications of Hamas strategy and tactics during the 2014 Gaza War: Adnan Abu Amer, "Hamas Recalls Fierce Shajaiya Battles during Gaza War," Al-Monitor, 13 August 2015: ; Shlomi Eldar, "Who Won Gaza's Shajaiya Battle? Depends on Whom You Ask," Al-Monitor, 18 August 2015: ; Shlomi Eldar, "Hamas Focuses on Rebuilding Tunnels as Gazans Suffer," Al-Monitor, 5 March 2015: go back up
  22. Allison and Burnette, "Fairness and Preference for Underdogs and Top Dogs," 299–300.go back up
  23. McGinnis and Gentry, "Underdog Consumption," 195. For example, communist insurgents in British-administered Malaya were unable to transform a program of targeted murder and intimidation into a popular revolt against the government. Over time, they were driven into remote jungle hinterlands, where they were effectively marginalized and rendered ineffectual. See Robert B. Asprey, War in the Shadows: The Guerrilla in History, Volume II (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, 1975), 781–94. go back up
  24. Goldschmied and Vandello, "The Future Is Bright," 41.go back up
  25. McGinnis and Gentry, "Underdog Consumption," 192. go back up
  26. Allison and Burnette, "Fairness and Preference for Underdogs and Top Dogs," 300.go back up
  27. Ibid., 300–1.go back up
  28. Aaron Y. Zelin, "New Video Message from the Islamic State: ‘Persistence, Not Backing Down—Wil?yat Sal?h Al-D?n,'" Jihadology (blog), 4 September 2015: back up
  29. Henry A. Kissinger, "The Viet Nam Negotiations," Foreign Affairs 48, no. 2 (January 1969): 214; also quoted as "A conventional army loses if it does not win. The guerilla army wins if he does not lose."go back up
  30. Ewoks are small furry humanoid creatures that appear in the film Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (Lucasfilm, 1983) (us). go back up
  31. Haroro Ingram, "What Analysis of the Islamic State's Messaging Keeps Missing," Washington Post, 14 October 2015: back up
  32. "Soldiers Killed ‘In Cold Blood,'" Daily Mail, n.d.; ; "Was It a Rolex? Caliph's Watch Sparks Guesses," Al Arabiya News, 6 July 2014: back up
  33. Amit R. Paley, "Shift in Tactics Aims to Revive Struggling Insurgency," Washington Post, 8 February 2008: back up
  34. "Report: ISIS Beheads 39 of Its Own Members," Jerusalem Post, 30 August 2015: go back up
  35. "Isis ‘Executes up to 200 Fighters' for Trying to Flee Jihad and Return Home," Independent, 29 December 2014: back up
  36. "ISIS Beheads a Moroccan Islamic Preacher over Spying Charges," Morocco World News, 9 September 2014: ; "Report: ISIS Beheads 39."go back up
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