If you’ve ever seen underdog films, such as Rocky or Remember the Titans, then you might also remember how inspiring it was seeing the relatively unknown boxer “go the distance” against Apollo Creed, or a racially integrated high school football team fight against racial prejudice during the 1970s. Although it’s obvious that these stories have an effect on their viewers, one researcher wanted to see just how much, and whether they would inspire viewers to accomplish their own goals.

Abby Prestin, lead author of the study, felt that there was too much research on the negative impacts of entertainment media, and not nearly enough focusing on the positive effects of certain stories. “When you look out into the world, it’s not difficult to find real life stories of people surviving situations where the odds aren’t in their favor,” Prestin, of the Department of Communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said in a statement. "Do these stories actually have an effect on the audience, and if so, what?”

The Underdog Triumphs

She tested this by recruiting 248 participants and assigning them to one of three media groups — underdog narrative, comedy, nature scenes — or a no-media control group. For five days, the participants in the media groups watched five-minute-long video clips of their respective subjects. Prestin had two goals in mind. She first wanted to see if the underdog videos would inspire hopefulness in the viewers, and she also wanted to see how motivated people were to accomplish their own goals after seeing the clips.

“Is it something we feel briefly, like most emotions, and move on, or is it something that changes us, or that we carry with us?” she asked.

After surveying participants, Prestin found that those who watched underdog videos felt more hopeful than the other participants. But going one step further, these emotions also proved to be long-lasting, with viewers reporting feelings of motivation to accomplish their own goals as much as three days after they watched the last video.

“It has always seemed to me that there’s an undeniable potency to inspirational stories that we haven’t quite harnessed yet,” Prestin said in the statement. “These results, to me, indicate that there are certain emotional, cognitive, and motivational pathways that inspirational underdog stories appear to activate. Although I wouldn’t say I have harnessed the power of these stories yet, this study is a step in that direction.”

Our Search For Media That Represents How We Feel

It seems that we can always identify with media that speaks to the way we feel. Just as people with goals may feel compelled to carry them out after seeing an underdog triumph, those who are sad — whether it’s from relationship troubles or elsewhere — tend to seek movies that represent these feelings. Researchers found in one study that participants who were dealing with the loss of a personal relationship tended to listen to sad music, while those who were dealing with interpersonal frustrations preferred angrier-sounding music.

So, with that said, the next time you’re feeling a little unmotivated, watching an underdog movie might be just what you need to get out of that rut. Unsure of what to watch? IMDb has some great recommendations.

Source: Prestin A. The Pursuit of Hopefulness: Operationalizing Hope in Entertainment Media Narratives. Media Psychology. 2013.