Going for the Gold

What we win when we train and compete.

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Bronze Is Better Than Silver

What could have been can tarnish what is.

The first US Olympic medal in the 2012 Olympics came in men's team archery, when the US lost to Italy to earn the silver.  Of course, earlier in the day, the US team beat the highly favored South Korean team.  And, they won several other contests as well.  But, in the final round, in the 4th end, the US was just one point from winning a gold, and the moment might well be remembered as a loss, rather than a win. On the other hand, the South Koreans came back from a loss to the US, beat Mexico, and won the bronze.

There are other ways to describe how the medals were earned, but this narrative in which the US lost to Italy and South Korea defeated Mexico is a common one.  This narrative reflects what psychologists call counterfactual thinking.  Counterfactual thinking occurs when people compare how things are with how things could have been.  As Victoria Medvec and Tom Gilovich of Cornell University demonstrated, when people win the silver medal, they think about how they could have won a gold.  When people win a bronze, they think about how they could have missed getting a medal at all.  In the case of the silver, the alternative is a better outcome, and people feel a loss.  In the case of the bronze, the alternative is worse, and people feel lucky to have made it on the podium at all.  Medvec and Gilovich demonstrated this effect by examining the emotional reactions of Olympic athletes.  They had students watch footage of awards ceremonies from the 1992 Olympic games.  On average, bronze medalists appeared happier than silver medalists.

Recently, Pete McGraw and his colleagues at the University of Colorado at Boulder have suggested that this increased satisfaction associated with winning a bronze medal comes from recognizing that one almost missed out on a podium finish, but also because silver and gold medalists have higher expectations for themselves.  So, in the case of athletes like Michael Phelps, who had very high expectations for his performance beginning with the 400 Individual Medley, the disappointment of getting fourth in the race is likely to be particularly acute. 

The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat comes not just from actual performance, but also from relative performance; from meeting, exceeding, or falling short of one's expectations.



Going for the Gold