Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Sport and Competition

Silver or Bronze Medalists: Who is Happier?

Why “What if’s” do more harm than good

In last week's post, I lamented the Minnesota Vikings most recent crushing playoff loss to the New Orleans Saints. However, anyone who has watched the Vikings for any period of time could not be completely shocked by this loss. After all, the Vikings hadn't been to the Super Bowl in more than 30 years and the Saints had the best record in the NFC this season and were at home in the NFC Championship.

The way in which the Vikings lost the game, however, was rather shocking. All season, they had taken excellent care of the football, before turning it over five teams against the Saints, including Brett Favre's interception on their last offensive play of the season with the Vikings poised to attempt a field goal to advance to the Super Bowl. These turnovers, along with three close calls in overtime that went against the Vikings led many fans to play the inevitable, but fruitless, "What if" game.

In social psychology, we call the "What if" game Counterfactual Thinking (CT). Essentially, CT involves imagining what could have been, typically after a negative outcome. In a classic study, Medvec, Madey, and Gilovich coded the facial expressions of Olympic medalists. Not surprisingly, Gold medalists exhibited the most joy. However, bronze medalists showed more positive emotional expressions than silver medalists. Objectively, this doesn't make sense because the silver medalist had just outperformed the bronze medalists. However, the reference point for silver medalists was likely "If only I had just run a little faster, I could have won the gold medal!". One can imagine that after years of training, missing on a chance to be considered the greatest in the world, an opportunity that might not present itself again, could be incredibly disheartening.

Bronze medalists were less likely to think about if they had been a little faster they would have won a silver medal. Instead, bronze medalists appeared to focus on the fact that they could have easily slipped to fourth place, in which case they would have missed out on a medal. Instead, they won a bronze and they could find joy in the fact that they will always be recognized as an Olympic medalist.

Take a look at the picture below:

Who looks happiest? Most unhappy? Rank the runners from most happy to least happy. Next week's blog will analyze a fantastic race between these three elite American runners that exemplified Medvec et al.'s research on counterfactual thinking.

Until then may all your goals sail through the posts, and if they don't, avoid the "What if" game and stay focused on your next kick (assuming your star QB doesn't throw an interception just before you attempt the kick!).

Medvec, V.H., Madey, S.F., & Gilovich, T. (1995). When less is more: Counterfactual thinking and satisfaction among Olympic medalists. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 603-610.

More from John Tauer Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today