Olympic medalists are stars, but gold is more coveted than silver and silver is more coveted than bronze, right? Not necessarily. Some silver medalists may be leaving the games less happy than some bronze medalists and here’s the reason why.
It is a psychology thing really. Researcher Tom Gilovich explains it this way to the Washington Post;
“If you win a silver, it is very difficult to not think, ‘Boy, if I had just gone a little faster at the end…The bronze-medal winners–some of them might think, ‘I could have gotten gold if I had gone faster,’ but it is easier to think, ‘Boy, I might not have gotten a medal at all!'”
Basically, silver medalists may be less happy than bronze medalists because of the mind’s tendency to dwell on all the glorious possibilities of what could have been.
Tom Gilovich’s research goes all the way back to the 90’s when he was part of a team of researchers who went to the 1992 Summer Olympics to study the emotional reactions of Silver and Bronze medalists.
It was not a stretch to conceive and eventually find that Gold medalists were quite happy with their performance and had very positive emotions, higher than the Silver and Bronze medalists. They, however, found that silver medalists would continuously talk about what they could have done differently in order to win while Bronze medalists were more focused on how lucky they were to win a medal at all.
Outside the hallowed Olympic games, the researchers also went to the Empire State Games, an amateur competition in New York, where they interviewed 115 athletes who received medals. The results were the same.
The researchers have attributed their results to something in psychology known as counterfactual thinking. It is, basically, the human tenancy to ponder the possible alternatives to life events.
There is the very twisted reason why the second best in a particular event may feel lower than the third best, so if a silver medalist comes across your way, you might like to give them a hug and be very effusive with your praise.