Would You Rather Win Silver Or Bronze? (Be Careful What You Wish For)

Aug 3, 2012
Originally published on August 3, 2012 9:32 am

Both athletes were U.S. swimmers, both were dripping wet after finishing an Olympics final, and both had just won medals.

The first said, "It's not my normal specialty. ... We went out there and raced tough – and just came up a little short."

The second had a beaming face. He said, "[I] swam my own race. And knew I had a lane, and had an opportunity, and I went for it. It worked out, you know, it's just awesome that I get to go on the podium tonight. Honestly, I'm really proud of myself!"

The disappointed athlete was Ryan Lochte, seconds after the 4x100m freestyle relay at the London 2012 Olympics. The guy who was thrilled? Brendan Hansen, just seconds after the 100-meter men's breaststroke finals.

Here's the funny part: The medal Lochte was disappointed to have won: silver. The medal Hansen was thrilled to have won: bronze.

Hansen put an exclamation mark on his delight when he exclaimed, "This is the shiniest bronze medal you will ever see. Ever."

For decades, psychologists have noted an irony in elite athletic competition: If you set aside the happy people who win gold and look only at the people who come in second and third, it's the men and women with bronze medals who invariably look happier than the athletes who won silver.

More than a century ago, William James noted: "So we have the paradox of a man shamed to death because he is only the second pugilist or the second oarsman in the world. That he is able to beat the whole population of the globe minus one is nothing; he has 'pitted' himself to beat that one; and as long as he doesn't do that nothing else counts."

In a paper they published after the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, researchers Victoria Medvec, Scott Madey and Thomas Gilovich evaluated photographs of athletes on the victory podium and also studied post-competition audio interviews. They found bronze medal-winners tended to be happier than silver medalists.

The psychologists guessed it was because silver medal-winners compare themselves to the athletes who won gold and feel they came up short. By contrast, bronze medal-winners seem to unconsciously compare themselves to people who didn't win a medal at all.

"Silver medalists may torment themselves with counterfactual thoughts, of 'If only...' or 'Why didn't I just,' " the researchers wrote. "Bronze medalists, in contrast, may be soothed by the thought that, 'At least I won a medal.' "

The researchers controlled for various alternate explanations: In some sports, such as soccer, the winners of the gold and silver medals are decided in the final match, and there is a separate match that decides the bronze medal winner.

They wondered: Was it possible the effect arose because the silver medal winners had just lost, whereas the bronze medal winners had just won? So the researchers eliminated sports with that playoff structure, and looked only at events where gold, silver and bronze medal-winners were decided at the same time. They found the pattern held up.

"We are not suggesting, of course, that finishing second or coming close to a cherished outcome always leads to less satisfaction than a slightly more modest performance," the researchers concluded. "Finishing second is truly a mixed blessing. Performing that well provides a number of direct benefits that increase our well-being: recognition from others, boosts to self-esteem, and so on.

"At the same time, it can indirectly lower satisfaction by the unfortunate contrast with what might have been."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


There is a lot of psychology involved in the Olympics. Athletes choke, teams play mind games with one another, but the psychology does not end with the competition. It turns out to extend to the medal ceremony. NPR's science correspondent Shankar Vedantam joins us regularly to talk about interesting social science research. He's here. Hi Shankar.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi Steve. So here's what I have. I want you to listen to two pieces of tape. You're going to hear from two athletes. They've just finished competing at the London Olympics. One of them won the silver medal, and one of them won the bronze medal.


VEDANTAM: And I want you to tell, from the emotion in their voices, which one got the silver and which one got the bronze.

INSKEEP: All right.

CHRISTIAN THOMAS: That's absolutely fantastic, and I think that shows that we really did follow our training program, building up to the Olympics and, yeah, so I was very proud today.

EMILY SEEBOHM: I don't know what went wrong, what I did differently from the heat to the semi to the final. There's just some point of me that just feels like I disappointed so many people. It's kind of tough and, you know, I don't want to let people down.

INSKEEP: OK. Let me think this through. You're saying that one of these people won a silver, one won a bronze. One sounds pretty happy, he says fantastic in a very calm way, and the other sounds utterly crushed. So could it be that the guy who said fantastic was the silver medalist?

VEDANTAM: Well, that's what you would think but it turns out that the happy guy was Christian Thomas from Team Great Britain, and they won the bronze medal in the men's gymnastics, and the really unhappy woman was Emily Seebohm from Australia, right after she won the silver, right behind Missy Franklin of the United States in the 100 meter backstroke. And I've notice a pattern the last few nights watching the Olympics, Steve, which is that the bronze medal winners, invariably, seem to be happier than the silver medal winners.

INSKEEP: Wait a minute. So you just barely make it onto the medal stand and you're like whoo, I'm here, and if you get silver, you're crushed. What's going on there?

VEDANTAM: Well, a bunch of researchers actually looked at this a few years ago. They're Victoria Medvec, Scott Madey and Thomas Gilovich, and they looked at athletes in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, and they looked at photographs of the athletes on the victory podium, and they also listened to tape of the athletes right after they had competed, and they found a systematic pattern which that the silver medal winners tended to be unhappy, or look more unhappy, and the bronze medal winners tended to be happier.

INSKEEP: OK. I could guess why that might be, but you tell me. Why would that be?

VEDANTAM: Well, so the researchers think that it has to do with something called framing, which is as human beings, we're not very good at objectively judging how happy we should be, or how ell we've performed. So if you had to judge whether you have a nice car or a big house or a smart kid, what you do is you end up comparing yourself to other people's cars, or other people's houses or other people's kids. So we're not very good at judging our performance in an absolute sense.

INSKEEP: Mm-hmm.

VEDANTAM: And so what's happening with the silver and bronze medal winners is that the silver medal winners are saying if only I had done a little bit better, I could have won the gold...

INSKEEP: Had the gold.

VEDANTAM: ...whereas the bronze medal winners are comparing themselves to all the chumps who didn't win a medal at all, and just saying, at least I got on the victory podium.

INSKEEP: Could there be other factors here having to do with individual athletes and what they expected coming in? Some people might unexpectedly win the bronze when they thought they were going to get nothing.

VEDANTAM: I think that's right. So in the case of Team Great Britain, this is the first medal in the men's gymnastics they're winning in a hundred years, and Emily Seebohm was widely tipped to win the gold. And so clearly her expectations were shattered. Now, the researchers controlled for expectations in their study, and they found that regardless of whether people met expectations or exceeded expectations, the pattern still held. That if you won the silver medal, you tended to be unhappier than if you won the bronze.

But the question of expectation actually still raises a deeper question. I'm not sure you really intended it, but let me try and get to it, which is that in both cases, regardless of whether you're judging how happy you should feel by comparing yourself to others, or you're judging how happy you should feel by comparing yourself to your own expectations. In both cases you are not measuring your happiness based on objective reality, you're basing your happiness based on stuff that's happening inside your own head.

INSKEEP: Hmm, which is a good thing to remember, and I suppose the lesson here is that whatever you're doing in life you want to try to finish third; is that right?


VEDANTAM: Well, I actually think that there's a tension here between what a sports coach will tell you and what a life coach would tell you. Because a sports coach would say, you know, perennial disappointment and high expectations may lead to disappointment, but that's what leads to better performance.

INSKEEP: All right.

VEDANTAM: But the life coach is going to say, you know, perennially comparing yourselves to other people, or even to your own expectations, is a recipe for unhappiness.

INSKEEP: Hmm. Well, Shankar Vedantam, this has been a bronze medal segment. Thank you very much.

VEDANTAM: Thanks Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR science correspondent, Shankar Vedantam. You can follow him on Twitter @hiddenbrain. You can also follow this program @morningedition and @nprinskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.