Bronze Better Than Silver?

Olympic Medals VancouverIt seems that Olympic third place finishers who win a bronze medal are happier than second place finishers who win a silver.

When Shannon Bahrke won bronze in women’s moguls Saturday, she hugged first-place winner Hannah Kearney so tightly that she almost knocked her U.S. teammate over. Under the cloud cover of Cypress Mountain, Ms. Bahrke was seeing the bronze lining. By contrast, Canadian skier Jennifer Heil looked crestfallen after taking silver.

According to experts, Ms. Bahrke’s ecstatic reaction wasn’t simply due to her bubbly personality.

“On average, bronze medalists are happier than silver medalists,” said Victoria Medvec, a psychologist and professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Managementv in Illinois.  The phenomenon is a case of counterfactual thinking – thoughts about “what might have been,” she explained.

Third-place winners have upward thoughts (“at least I won”) that increase satisfaction, researchers have found, whereas those who come in second tend to have downward “if only” thoughts that decrease happiness.

The most telling study involving athletes used footage from medal ceremonies at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.  Researchers including Dr. Medvec asked subjects to rate the satisfaction of bronze and silver medal winners based on their facial expressions. The study revealed a disconnect between performance and satisfaction, said Dr. Medvec.  “Those who perform objectively better can actually feel worse than those who they outperformed.”

Presumably, this is because “if you’re not first, you’re last.” And, indeed, since gold and silver medal winners are often separated by mere hundredths of a second, it’s easy to feel like you’ve “lost” by coming in second.  Even though the third place finisher is probably just hundredths of a second off, too, the fact that two people are ahead of you means that you’re likely not one tiny mistake from having won.

Hat tip: Tyler Cowen.  Medal images:  CNET.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Anon says:

    Also, maybe there is more variation in the 3rd place winner. In other words, maybe getting 3rd is more pleasantly unexpected, on average, than getting 2nd.

  2. Triumph says:

    This is exactly why the Olympics are idiotic.

    You either win or you lose. Having three “stages” of winning is typical political correctness which we see in internationalist forums like the IOC and the UN. Screw this “we all win” crap. Only the gold medalists are winners.

    While we’re on the topic of the Olympics–can we PLEASE get rid of curling?!?! This is the most idiotic activity in the world–pushing an old tyre on a sheet of ice?!?!

    It is not surprising that the game originated in an European Union nation where the national dish is sheep’s stomach. It is asinine!

    Also, lets get rid of ALL of the stupid skating events. Figure skating is incredibly stupid and the music they play is vapid. Send all the men to the Army–they will be welcomed by Hussein’s new policy getting rid of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

    Finally, why isn’t hoops in the Winter Olympics?!?! Hoops is a winter sport, just like hockey. You don’t play neither of those games outside, so it don’t matter when you play. Playing hoops in the Summer Games is just dumb. We play hoops in the winter–if you want to be taken seriously, bring hoops to the Winter Games.

  3. DL says:

    Interesting that I was just researching for a novel and came across an item that claims an ongoing controversy about why Philppino soldiers shouldn’t have been given Silver Stars rather than Bronze Stars over the Bataan Death March -some 68 years ago. (Wikipedia)

  4. just me says:

    My daughter and I were just talking about this the other day. We both decided the worst place to finish in the Olympics is 4th-just out of medal contention and the second worst place is the silver.

    I think athlete reactions-especially in judged sports are a good indication as well of how they feel about silver medals. The athletes that take of their medals in tantrums or dissappointment are often the ones who won the silver.

    But then if you are silver you lost the gold, if you are bronze you won a medal.

  5. William d'Inger says:

    That just proves the old saying, “No one has ever won a silver medal, but a lot of people have lost gold ones.”

  6. Sam says:

    Or have the gold taken away (Basketball in 1972 Olympics; video).

  7. ggr says:

    I suspect that’s just the initial reaction. From what I’ve seen (not experienced unfortunately), having won a silver medal seems to bring in great joy as the years go by. In fact, even just being to the Olympics and not winning anything is something most seem to be very proud of later on in life.