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photo credit: Slava Keyzman

The Science of Counterfactual Thinking: Why Bronze Medalists Are Happier Than Than Silver Medalists

When it comes to the Olympics, the rankings are clear: the gold medalist is the top athlete, followed by silver, and finally, bronze.

The top athletes go for gold. If not gold, then silver is better than the bronze medal. But if that’s the case, why do medalists holding the bronze have a wider grin on their faces than the silver medalists?

How Olympic Athletes React Based On Which Medal They Receive

In a study comparing the reactions of medal winners, researchers took video recordings of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. The first recording showed the athletes as they learned their placement and the second recording showed the medal winners standing on the podium.

Researchers shared the footage with undergraduate students and asked them to rate the happiness levels of each winner. On a 10-point scale, 1 was “agony” and 10 was “ecstasy.”

Immediately after the winners were announced, the silver medalists scored an average of 4.8, while the bronze medalists scored 7.1. When they were on the podium, the silver medalists scored 4.3, and the bronze medalists scored 5.7. In both instances, the bronze medalists were noticeably happier than the silver medalists.

To see if this phenomenon applies across cultures, let’s fast forward to the 2004 Athens Olympics. In another study, researchers analyzed the facial expression of 84 athletes across 35 different countries from six continents. The study looked at athletes’ expressions at three different times: immediately after the match, when receiving the medal, and when posing on the podium.

After completing the match, 13 out of 14 gold medalists smiled, and 17 out of 28 bronze medalists smiled. However, none of the silver medalists smiled. In fact, 2 out of 14 silver medalists showed contempt, 6 had a sad expression, and the rest had no expression.

When receiving the medal and podium posing, the majority of medalists smiled. However, the gold and bronze were much more likely to have a duchenne smile, signaling genuine happiness and positive feelings. The silver medalists, although smiling for the most part, had more controlled expressions that indicated forced smiles.

Happiness Depends On Who’s Happier

While you might not stand on a podium anytime soon, the reactions of the medal winners gives insight into a universal truth: happiness is relative.

Let’s say you make $100,000 a year. If you look at this salary on its own, it looks pretty good. Soon after, you walk into a room and learn that everyone else is making less than that. Your perception of your own salary improves. Things look great!

But what happens when you enter another room and learn that everyone earns at least double that amount? That same $100,000 starts to look paltry while your self-esteem takes a nosedive.

Or say you work in a sales position where the person with the lowest commissions is let go each year. For the second year in a row, you’re one of the lowest earners. So when it’s time for the annual cut, you hold your breath and tense up, preparing for the bad news.

That sense of dread immediately turns into relief after you learn that someone did even worse. Even though you should technically be disappointed at your performance, you actually feel happier than someone performing in the middle or near the top of the pack.

In psychology, this phenomenon is known as counterfactual thinking. People tend to think up possible alternatives to events that have already happened. We tend to imagine answers to “What if?” or “If only…”.

When creating alternatives, our minds tend to drift to the nearest possibility. A silver medalist likely thinks about how close he was to reaching gold. A bronze medalist, though, might imagine how close she was to not receiving any medal at all. Depending on the alternative, a person feels either relief or regret.

While relief is a positive emotion, regret can be a painful and bitter experience. Why can’t silver medalists be happy with their medal? Is there a purpose to counterfactual thinking?

How to Use Counterfactual Thinking to Your Advantage

Imagining alternative realities can be used to our benefit, provided our emotions and thoughts are channeled correctly.

Here are three ways to use counterfactual thinking to your advantage:

1. Risk prevention

We usually do our best to avoid behavior that lands us in hot water. However, we still manage to slip up from time to time, and it’s those times with dire consequences that provide the most valuable lessons.

One time, someone I knew had eaten a food sample without asking about the ingredients. She had a nut allergy and had to spend the rest of the day in the hospital. Eventually, she recovered and learned to always check what was in the food she ate. The mental image of lying in the hospital was a strong reminder to keep vigilant about her diet.

While we try to minimize risks, there are other times when we can outright eliminate them. For instance, if there’s a storm outside, thinking about a car accident can be enough to reschedule a casual get-together for another time when the roads are safer. Counterfactual thinking can be used to take necessary precautions against undesirable outcomes.

2. Behavioral change

A negative experience triggers emotions such as regret, anger, and embarrassment. These emotions can then lead to a strong desire to alter future behavior for a more positive experience.

Job interviews are one of the most nerve-wracking experiences people encounter regularly. If a job interview went poorly, you might think, “If only I had presented myself better, I would have advanced to the next round.” After such a thought, you practice your interviewing skills to avoid any future mishaps.

Counterfactual thinking can also be used to prevent imagined outcomes. If you’re going through your first performance review or an unfamiliar exam, you likely imagine a number of scenarios. You might visualize what types of questions are brought up and how you would respond to them.

Anticipating multiple scenarios ahead of time lets you prepare for the real event.

3. Emotion regulation

Milestone events can sometimes leave us wondering how things could have gone differently. We wonder about how we managed an entrance exam, an important meeting, or the decision to relocate to another city.

When we use upward counterfactual thinking, we imagine how things could have turned out better. Downward counterfactual thinking, on the other hand, is about comforting ourselves on how things could have turned out worse.

Unfortunately, life doesn’t have a reset button. Before we gravitate towards upward or downward thinking, we first need to determine whether the event is likely to happen again. If so, we need to know figure out whether the event is within our control.

If we get a second chance at an event, such as meeting sales prospects or practicing a sport, then upward counterfactual thinking is beneficial in future planning. We can think of how to improve next time and take steps to reach that desired outcome.

But if an event is not likely to happen again, such as planning a wedding (hopefully), then it’s better to use downward counterfactual thinking. And if the event is outside your control, such as whether someone responds to your message, downward counterfactual thinking is again a better strategy.

In these situations, getting stuck on what could have been is unproductive at best and downright painful at worst. No matter the outcome, sometimes the only thing you can do is cope and move on to other things.

The Subjective Nature of Objective Accomplishments

Psychologist William James says it best in his book, The Principles of Psychology:

“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.”

Who or what you pit yourself against plays a large factor into how you perceive your accomplishments. As long as your goal hasn’t been achieved, those regrets can last a long, long time.

The next time you watch a competition, look at the faces of medal winners. Their expressions tell a valuable story about the subjective nature of a person’s objective achievements — a story that shows the power of our perceptions.