Extant research has demonstrated that underdog expectations—individuals’ perceptions that others view them as unlikely to succeed—can have positive implications for motivating performance. In this paper, we draw on self-determination theory to examine how and when underdog expectations can have detrimental consequences for both the employee and the organization. Specifically, we propose that underdog expectations can decrease employees’ need fulfillment, which in turn leads to more cheating behavior. Furthermore, we theorize that the indirect effect of underdog expectations on cheating behavior via need fulfillment is weaker when general self-efficacy is high than when it is low. Results from two studies using complementary designs support our predictions. Overall, our research demonstrates a potential dark side to underdog expectations and also contributes to the behavioral ethics literature.
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Following recent research (Nurmohamed, 2020), we use the terms underdog expectations and low expectations interchangeably in this article.
In line with other management scholars who conducted both between-person and within-person analyses to develop theories (e.g., Koopman et al., 2020; Troester & Quaquebeke, 2020; Watkins & Umphress, 2020; Zhang, Mayer, & Hwang, 2018), we do not take a stand on whether underdog expectations should be examined at a given level (i.e., between- or within-person). We do, however, believe that the theoretical linkages of variables in our model can be tested at both levels (i.e., Study 1 and Study 2), and that similar findings should emerge.
While rivalry and underdog expectations can be driven by subjective conditions and be socially constructed, they are theoretically distinct. For instance, rivalry occurs among dyads, whereas underdog expectations arise from target groups. In addition, underdog expectations can exist in the absence of a rivalry, and vice versa (Nurmohamed, 2014).
Because the control group included both neutral and favorite conditions, we separated these two conditions and reran the model. Results indicated that the indirect effect from underdog expectations to cheating through need fulfillment was significant when general self-efficacy was low (underdog condition vs. favorable condition: coefficient = .162; 95% CI [.021, .405]; underdog condition vs. neutral condition: coefficient = .177; 95% CI [.036, .405), but it was not significant when general self-efficacy was high (underdog condition vs. favorable condition: coefficient = -.047; 95% CI [− .215, .056]; underdog condition vs. neutral condition: coefficient = .063; 95% CI [− .027, .259).
We took several steps to ensure the quality of our data. First, we blocked duplicate IP addresses and suspicious geocode locations. Second, we added attention check items to our recruitment survey. We did not invite those participants to complete the weekly surveys if they failed to pass an attention check.
Our conceptualization of need fulfillment includes competence needs, relatedness needs, and autonomy needs, which may be differentially affected by underdog expectations. To explore this possibility, we separated different categories of needs and constructed 95% confidence intervals for the indirect effects. The indirect relationship between underdog expectations and cheating was mediated by competence needs and relatedness needs in Study 2 only; in addition, self-efficacy moderated these indirect relationships. We did not observe any significant indirect and conditional indirect effects in Study 1. One possible reason for these results might be insufficient power. To increase statistical power, we used 90% confidence intervals corresponding to one-tailed tests, α = .05 and reran the model. Across Study 1 and Study 2, we found that the relationship between underdog expectations and cheating was mediated by competence needs and relatedness needs, and the indirect effect was significant only when general self-efficacy was low. We observed that autonomy needs mediated the relationship between underdog expectations and cheating only in Study 1; moreover, self-efficacy did not moderate this indirect relationship.
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This research was supported by the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities and the Research Funds of Renmin University of China (21XNF029).
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Loi, T.I., Feng, Z., Kuhn, K.M. et al. When and How Underdog Expectations Promote Cheating Behavior: The Roles of Need Fulfillment and General Self-efficacy. J Bus Ethics (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-021-04976-0
- Low expectation
- Cheating behavior
- Need fulfillment
- Self-determination theory