Self-centered emotions on display at Olympics
It seems much of the world's attention is glued to the Olympic games in Canada this month. Regardless of whether your favorite sport is figure skating, hockey, ski cross, or curling, there is much excitement and human drama. And invariably, every event ends with a clock or judges' score determining who makes a trip to the podium for the playing of a national anthem.
The emotions on display by the athletes in these moments are often some of the most enduring images of the Olympics. Yet, a number of people have noticed some peculiar observations. Yes, the gold medal winner is beaming with pride and excitement -- that is to be expected. Yet often, it seems the bronze medal winner is happier than the silver medalist. It is strange to think that the 3rd place contestant might be happier than someone who objectively did better (i.e., 2nd place). How can this be? Psychological processes involving the self and how we think about the causes of our circumstances can help to explain this interesting effect.
In particular, research on counterfactual thinking can provide some important insights. Counterfactual thinking is the phenomenon of "what if" reasoning. In order to understand our world and our choices, we often imagine how things could have been different. The divorcee may ask, "would I be happier today if only I had married someone else." Likewise, a floundering student may ponder, "if only I had chosen another major, maybe I would have a better shot at getting into graduate school." In short, counterfactual thinking allows us to mentally simulate alternatives to our current reality in order to understand what features were most causal in bringing about the current outcome.
With respect to the Olympics, the "what ifs" facing the contestants are starkly different. Clearly, the only "what ifs" for the gold medalist involve not being #1 -- thus, any counterfactualizing makes this athlete realize how fortunate she or he is. For the bronze medalist (the person who comes in 3rd), the most salient "what if" involves not being on the podium at all, again producing relatively positive feelings. However, for the silver medalist, the "what ifs" can easily make the athlete ponder how things could have been different in order to have won the gold medal (e.g., what if I practiced harder, what if I had not made the small error in my routine, what if a particular judge was of a different nationality). Thus, the "what ifs" that come to mind for the 1st and 3rd place finishers are positive, but 2nd place finishers have a number of dissatisfying alternatives to reality that can make them feel less happy in a moment of considerable triumph.
The above reasoning has been tested in experiments examining actual athletes. At Cornell University, psychologists Vicki Medvec, Scott Madey, and Tom GIlovich examined videotapes of the emotional responses of Olympic athletes (from the Barcelona Spain summer games) who had just learned the outcome of their event (e.g., swimmers immediately at the conclusion of a race) and later on the podium where the medals were awarded. Indeed, they found that bronze medalists expressed more positive emotions than silver medalists despite the fact that the former athletes performed objectively less well than the latter athletes. They replicated these results with athletes at a national amateur athletic event as well in New York state.
Indeed, the propensity to counterfactualize following an event is common, and for silver medalists, many of their "what if" thoughts are negative. It is also worth noting that a number of features of the Olympic games will heighten the propensity of athletes to imagine alternatives to their actual reality, which should amplify the negativity experienced by silver medalists. For example, research has shown that we are more likely to counterfactualize about events for which we have control (and clearly, athletes devote thousands of hours to practicing routines and skills for their "one shining moment" on the world stage). Also, people are more likely to counterfactualize after unusual events. So when a silver medalist makes a slight mistake in a routine or a ski jump, their deviance from typical excellent performance in practice sessions will make it very easy for them to imagine how they would have won the gold medal if only they had not produced that slight hiccup.
Of course at the end of the day, everyone is subject to the processes of counterfactual thinking, not just Olympic athletes. However, because often in life good outcomes and bad outcomes aren't identified instantaneously or documented so clearly for billions to see, the effects can seem less striking. Yet, because counterfactual thinking is one of the few ways we have to assess causality in the world, we all can occasionally find ourselves the silver medalist in our day-to-day lives and less satisfied with objectively better realities.