Yesterday I was sort of watching the Olympics -- reading the New York Times on my iPhone and occasionally glancing-up at the TV. There was some swimming race I wasn't following on the screen, but I looked-up because of all the enthusiasm by the guy on the screen. I was sure he had won a gold medal. Actually he hadn't, he had won bronze. His name is Brendan Hansen and he won it in the 100 meter breaststroke -- that is him above. In looking into his story, there are lots of reasons for him to be excited,as he was the oldest athlete in the field at 31, he had retired after the Beijing Olympics and done a comeback, he is only the 13th swimmer to win a medal after the age of 30, and he was not favored to win a medal. So he certainly deserves to be happy for many reasons.
But his joy on the screen reminded me of a cool study I first heard of nearly 20 years ago that, I strongly suspect, still holds true. A team of researchers found that, while gold medalists are happiest about their accomplishments, bronze medalists in the same events are consistently happier than sliver medalists. This was first established in a 1995 study by Vicki Medvec, Scott Madey, and Tom GIlovich. They coded videotapes of Olympic athletes from the Barcelona Spain summer games just after they learned of their performance, such as swimmers like Brendan Hansen right after their race. Then they coded the emotions again when they were awarded the medals on the podium.
They found that gold medalists displayed the strongest positive emotions, but bronze winners displayed stronger positive emotions than silver winners. The researchers replicated these same 1-3-2 findings in two other events, including the Empire State Games, an amateur competition in New York.
The researchers proposed that this finding is driven by what is called "counterfactual thinking," those thoughts of what might have been if something different had happened. In particular, they proposed that silver medals did upward comparisons to the gold medal winner, while the bronze medalists did downward comparisons to people who didn't win medals. As one of the authors, Tom GIlovich, explained to the Washington Post, "If you win a silver, it is very difficult to not think, 'Boy, if I had just gone a little faster at the end . The bronze-medal winners -- some of them might think, 'I could have gotten gold if I had gone faster,' but it is easier to think, 'Boy, I might not have gotten a medal at all!' "
I guess, to put perhaps too fine a point on it, silver medalists see themselves as the first loser, while bronze medalists see themselves as the last winner.
Like all research, this won't hold in every case, other factors come into play, especially -- as you could see with Brendan Hansen -- that happiness is also a function of what you get versus what you expect, and exceeding expectations is a universal trigger of positive emotion. So, for example, if the U.S. basketball team, who are strong "overdogs" get a gold get a bronze instead, I bet they won't act as happy as Hansen after they learn of the result.
Enjoy, and as we watch the Olympics, let's see if those bronze medalists look a bit happier than the silver medalists standing along aside them, as Medvec and her colleagues found.
P.S. Here is the source: