In Olympic events, the gold, silver, and bronze medal goes to the athlete that did the best, the second best, and the third best, respectively. You’d expect, then, that the bronze, silver, and gold medalist would feel happy, happier, and happiest, right? Strangely, that’s not the case. The athlete who wins bronze routinely feels happier than the athlete who wins silver. It all comes down to a quirk of human psychology.
There’s a Jerry Seinfeld stand-up special from 1998 where he says “You win the gold, you feel good. You win the bronze, you think, ‘Well, at least I got something.’ But you win that silver, that’s like, ‘Congratulations! You almost won. Of all the losers, you came in first of that group. You’re the number-one loser.” In 1995, Cornell psychologists Victoria Medvec and Thomas Gilovich teamed up with University of Toledo psychologist Scott Madey to see if athletes really felt that way.
For a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the researchers edited down film clips of roughly 40 silver and bronze medal winners at the 1992 summer Olympics. The film clips came in two versions: the athlete’s immediate reaction to the winner announcements directly following each event, and the athlete at the medal ceremony several hours later. Next, without telling them which medal each athlete won, they asked undergraduate students to rate the athletes’ reactions on a 10 point scale, with 1 being “agony” and 10 being “ecstacy.”
The results found that the bronze medalists appeared much happier than the silver medalists. The participants rated the bronze medalists at a 7.1 immediately following their win announcement and a 5.7 on the podium, whereas the silver medalists were rated only 4.8 after the announcement and 4.3 at the medal ceremony. Similar results were shown after the judo competition of the 2004 Olympic Games.
In the 1995 paper, the psychologists chalk this paradoxical reaction up to something called “counterfactual thinking”: instead of thinking of your achievement objectively, you compare it to what “might have been.” For the silver medalist, that counterfactual thought is probably that they could have won the gold if they had done a little better. For the bronze medalist, however, it’s the opposite: they almost didn’t win a medal at all. That’s a massive difference that the silver medalist just doesn’t have, and the reason that a bronze medalist is generally happier with their achievement. As Scientific American concludes, “There may, indeed, be times when less really is more.”
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