The Greatest Ever? Not So Fast...

Michael Phelps has been beyond great. But the "greatest ever"?

Posted Aug 17, 2008

U.S. Swimmer Michael Phelps just won his 8th gold medal of the Beijing Olympics tonight, the 14th gold of his career. These are feats that have never been accomplished before, and it's hard to argue with the conclusion that his is the greatest Olympic performance of all time. Some in the sporting world (and beyond) are also calling Phelps the greatest athlete of all time. But not so fast—a number of psychological considerations suggest that the pundits (and public) are likely getting a bit carried away.

Before I go any further, let me make one thing clear for the record. What Phelps has done is extraordinary and unprecedented. None of my analysis is meant to argue or imply otherwise; his performance has been simply amazing. But the title of "greatest ever" is a fairly lofty one, and it seems appropriate to scrutinize its unofficial conferral. So, Michael, when you get back to the Olympic Village and check out the Psychology Today blogs this evening, I just want to make sure that you note that I've recognized in unqualified terms how impressive and historical your accomplishments have been, OK?

There, I feel a lot better.

But why would I suggest that Phelps might not truly be the "greatest athlete" ever, as close to two-thirds of the nonscientific sample of an poll now suggest (see right)? And what might psychology have to offer in conducting this analysis? I can think of at least three relevant psychological issues:

• First, there's good reason to believe that a variation of the availability heuristic is at play here. This just happened. Phelps is currently all over every TV channel and news website in the U.S., and almost as many across the globe. His accomplishments are extremely salient to us at this point in time and it's difficult to judge relative greatness without the perspective granted by the passage of time. There's a reason the Baseball Hall of Fame, for example, requires a 5-year waiting period before retired players are eligible for enshrinement.

The general idea of the availability heuristic is that we often estimate the frequency or probability of an event based on how readily examples of it spring to mind. So what's more common in the English language, words with the letter "K" as the first letter or words with "K" as the third letter? Many people would say words starting with "K," in large part because examples jump to mind readily and quickly. But it turns out that there are many more words that have "K" as a third letter—they're just not as easy to think of off the top of your head.

So if I ask you to name great athletes, whose name is readily available to you at the moment?  Phelps, of course.  More generally, even beyond the domain of sports, I'd argue that people are typically lousy at judging "the greatest ever" in any area, due to the availability heuristic among other factors. Historians who carefully scrutinize records over a particular era might be able to render informed, albeit subjective verdicts on such matters, but most laypeople are unduly biased towards that which they remember easily and think of quickly. How else to explain that we've seen literally dozens of "Trials of the Century" in the past 100 years, from the Scopes Monkey Trial to the Lindbergh kidnapping, from John Hinckley to O. J. Simpson?

• Second, in addition to availability, there's also a self-motivated reason for us to see Phelps deemed the greatest ever. Because we were able to watch Phelps' triumph and because we'll have stories to tell about what we saw in these Olympics, we're able to perceive a personal connection to what he's done that goes so far as to make us feel good about ourselves.

Over 30 years ago, Bob Cialdini and colleagues first wrote about our tendency to do just this, to bask in the glory reflected by others because it makes us feel good. It's why more college students wear school insignia to classes the Monday after their football team has won. It's why sports fans in general are more likely to use personal pronouns such as "we" in describing their team's victories than when talking about losses. Our tendency to bask in others' athletic successes even crosses over species. In his book on the celebrated harness racehorse Dan Patch, Charles Leerhsen argues that the horse was the most beloved American sports figure of the early 20th Century, offering the following as evidence:

People exaggerated their connection to the horse to make themselves seem more important, or better human beings. A common boast in the 1920s, '30s and '40s- a kind of urban myth comparable with saying you were at Wrigley Field when Babe Ruth hit his famous "called shot" home run-was to say you were once at a racetrack someplace, leaning on the fence and watching Dan Patch warm up, when his trainer drove the horse over, picked you out of the crowd and asked if you'd like to take ole Danny Boy for a spin... In their obituaries, many men who had never met Dan Patch... were identified as his trainer, owner, breeder, horseshoer or groom, their impressive fibs following them to the grave.

Might the rapid elevation of Phelps' performance share some of the motivations Leerhsen describes, even if we as fans are unaware of the self-serving inclinations we might be harboring?

• Finally, I think there's also a compelling argument to be made that those who would call Phelps the greatest ever are doing what we humans often do in perceiving the world, namely not giving sufficient weight to the situational factors at play. Now, normally when social psychologists make such an argument, we're arguing that perceivers have been too quick to leap to a dispositional explanation for an observed behavior, that other people, too, might have acted in the same way had they been in a similar situation. Of course, that's not the argument I'm making here, as anyone who's ever seen me swim (or, for that matter, wear a bathing suit) can attest.

But this debate is being pitched in largely dispositional terms (i.e., is he the greatest *athlete* ever, as opposed to is this the greatest athletic *performance* ever). And what I really mean to suggest is along the lines of the argument I made in a previous post, namely that important aspects of situations in daily life often escape our attention. In the case of Phelps, he has certainly had a terrific Olympics (now, that might be the greatest understatement of the century). But he also competes in a sport that presents its elite competitors with the opportunity to rack up multiple medals. Swimmers can compete in races of varying distances. There are races in 4 different strokes, as well as individual medleys combining strokes. Then there are relays as well. Is Mark Spitz the second-greatest athlete of all time?

The greatest of basketball and water polo players have a chance at 1 medal in an Olympics. Same with boxers and wrestlers. Track and field stars have more, but still not as many as swimmers. Consider Carl Lewis' 1984 performance, when he won gold in the 100m, 200m, 4 x 100m relay, and long jump. Was Phelps' 2008 demonstrably better than that? It's hard to say. I'm quite sure this last argument will annoy the swimming fans out there, but what if Lewis had been afforded the same opportunities as Phelps to cover different distances in different ways? Swimmers have races in backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, and freestyle; how many medals could Lewis have won if he could've entered the 100m gallop, the 100m skip, and the 100m crabwalk?

OK, so you might resist that last analogy. But the crabwalk would be pretty fun to watch, wouldn't it? And the bigger point is that Phelps' historical milestone was attributable to a number of factors: his phenomenal training regimen, his unsurpassed drive to win, his genetic gifts, and more. But he also owes at least part of his title as greatest Olympian ever to the current set-up of the Games, which affords swimmers more opportunities to medal than most other athletes. To ignore this fact and crown Phelps greater than Lewis, Jesse Owens, Eric Heiden, Sonja Henie, Al Oerter, and others seems impulsive. Not to mention, of course, all the non-Olympic athletes who certainly merit consideration for the title of greatest ever.