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Second place is better than third place…but not if you ask researchers who studied the happiness of silver medalists versus that of those who won bronze. Think about the last time you saw athletes on the Olympic podium; the gold medalist was probably beaming, the bronze medalist was probably looking quite pleased – and then there was the silver medalist. Remember the interviews conducted immediately after the events. A silver medalist may tell you how they came up short, while a bronze medalist is pleased about making it to the podium. While neither won the entire event, third place still seems like a happier place to be than second.
Researchers Victoria Medvec, Scott Madey, and Thomas Gilovich studied photos of medal winners and video of the moments where athletes learned of their results, post-competition interviews, and podium appearances to judge the level of happiness of bronze and silver medalists. College students then ranked the athletes’ reactions on a scale of 1 to 10, or from “agony” to “ecstasy.” Photos and recordings were taken from the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and the paper was released in 1995. Despite the paper being 17 years old, the results are getting plenty of attention now due to the 2012 London Games.
Researchers believe that the cause of happiness or unhappiness is the thought of what might have been, called counterfactual thinking. For a silver medalist, the closest outcome to compare theirs to would be winning the gold. When compared to coming in first, winning silver seems like a loss, like the athlete came just short of earning the top honor. The closest comparison to a bronze medal would be fourth place, not earning a medal. Bronze medalists may feel lucky or accomplished just to be on the podium because they were closer to not making it there.
David A. Gershaw, Ph.D., of Jiksha, compares it to two people missing a plane. A person who is five minutes late for the plane will focus on what they could have done differently to arrive a few minutes earlier; being so close to a goal and not achieving it causes frustration. Someone who arrives 30 minutes late will face the same outcome as the person who arrived five minutes late (having to take a later flight), yet will feel less frustration because they didn’t “just miss” the plane.
The results were first noticed with soccer teams. The gold medal-winning team was elated, the silver medal team was crushed, and the bronze medal team was pleased. In team competitions like soccer, only one team plays another at a time. This means that the final game decides the first and second-place teams, while the soon-to-be third-place team gets its standing from winning a different game versus the eventual fourth-place team. It is understandable that the silver team would be upset; they would have just lost a game. In contrast, the bronze team would have just won their game, leaving them happy.
Because of the effect of just losing a game, researchers didn’t count sports that had winners decided in a playoff structure. Instead, they focused only on sports where the gold, silver, and bronze medals were awarded at the same time.
The researchers are quick to point out that winning silver doesn’t always cause dissatisfaction; it’s just that it could potentially cause the athletes to compare their situation to what could have been if they had won gold instead of if they had not earned a medal. Winning silver is still a huge accomplishment that anyone should be proud to achieve.
Counterfactual thinking isn’t just for Olympians. Even if you are terrible at sports, Gershaw says you may feel the effects of counterfactual thinking if you play the lottery and you have numbers close to those on the winning ticket. If you do compete in anything and find yourself in second place, try to remind yourself of what would have been if you hadn’t earned a top-three finish at all. Suddenly second place doesn’t sound so bad.