Counterfactual thinking: Using psychology to explain why bronze medalists are happier than those who won silver

A 'thrilled' recipient of an Olympic silver medal.
A 'thrilled' recipient of an Olympic silver medal.

Is winning a silver medal better than bronze if we talk in terms of human psychology? Due to how our brains are wired, more often than not, we measure our achievements by pondering how things could have gone differently.

We contemplate the events that took place and reason with ourselves about what other outcomes could have transpired, for better or worse. Human psychology has a natural inclination to imagine alternative outcomes for events that have already occurred.

In the field of psychology, this way of thinking, where the whole focus is on what didn't happen, is called counterfactual thinking.

The psychology of medal winners

Let us understand through psychology why bronze medal winners seem happier than silver medalists. We will also back up our claims through scientific studies and research papers.

It boils down to whom and to what we compare ourselves to. Bronze medal winners usually seem happier because they look at the person who finished fourth and are thankful for not being in their shoes. After facing and overcoming adversity, we tend to reassure ourselves about how things could have been worse still.

The bronze winners realize how they might not have gotten any medals at all. So they take their victory very gracefully as it's better than being in fourth place.

Just look at the grin on bronze medalist PV Sindhu's face!

Now, let us understand what goes on in the mind of a silver medalist.

Silver medal winners find themselves in a never-ending loop of "what if." In the field of psychology, this behavior is also known as upward counterfactual thinking, which involves focusing on how the situation could have been better.

Silver medalists' minds gravitate towards thinking that they missed out on the gold medal by an agonizingly small margin. The silver medal is seen as a shortcoming because the mind constantly contemplates questions such as: "What if I would have done this differently? I might have won gold."

They tend to focus more on the fact that they missed winning the gold medal by a narrow margin than that they still won silver. This is a manifestation of the pessimistic side of human psychology, in that we tend to focus more on negative things.

Here is a picture of Ravi Dahiya, who won a silver medal in the Tokyo Olympics. The sadness on his face says it all.

Another example is that of McKayla Maroney after she won silver at the London Olympics in 2012.

Backing psychology through scientific evidence

The empirical claims from the field of psychology that we make here are also backed by rigorous scientific analyses. Noted scientist Thomas D. Gilovich, a professor of psychology at Cornell University, scientifically analyzed the emotions of medal winners at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. He concluded that bronze medal winners are happier than the silver medal winners.

Speaking to Newswise, he said:

"people do not respond to the stimuli they encounter, they respond to the meaning they assign to those stimuli. Few empirical findings illustrate this lesson better than the result — first documented in the context of the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain — that bronze medalists appear to be happier, both just after they finish their events and on the medal stand, than the silver medalists who outperformed them. Silver medalists naturally focus on something they didn't achieve, the coveted gold, whereas bronze medalists focus on what they did achieve — a medal."

Andrea Luangrath, Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of Iowa, also shares Gilovich's view. She conducted extensive research on the facial expressions of medal winners of each Olympics from 2000 to 2016. Her research was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

During an interview with NPR, she said:

"Silver medalists tend to think about, and compare themselves to, that gold medalist. So they think, 'Maybe if I had only done something different, I could have won that gold medal'. But that bronze medalist, they're actually forming a downward comparison. And they're thinking, at least I'm not that fourth place finisher. At least I'm not that person who didn't even earn a medal."

So what is the moral of the story? The major takeaway is that there will always be those who are better than us at something. But if we spend all our time thinking about how we measure up against them, it will affect our mental peace. Instead, we need to focus on our own well-being and be better versions of ourselves.

Edited by Sandeep Banerjee
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