Bronze Better Than Silver?
It 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.