August 15, 2008

Olympic Medals & Emotions

My favorite brain science podcaster alerted me to a new-to-me psychology podcast called the Psych Files. In this week's episode, Psych Files host Michael Britt talks about the emotions of (some) Olympic medal winners.

Quick, who do you think is happier:
Silver medal winners?
Bronze medal winners?

(I think we can probably surmise that gold medal winners are the happiest of the three, but that isn't addressed in the podcast)

Answer: Bronze medal winners.

Britt summarizes a neat 1995 study in which non sports fans analyzed video of silver and bronze medal winners in the 1992 Olympics to see which winners were happier. With some degree of reliability, subjects agreed that bronze medal winners were happier. Britt and the study's authors suggest that this is because the bronze medalists were happy because they won a medal, while silver medalists were less happy because they didn't win the gold.

Britt's podcast summary is: "Psychologists say that winning the silver medal - coming in second - is actually less satisfying than coming in third - the bronze. Why is that? Sounds weird, but it also sounds right, doesn’t it? Have you ever come in second in a contest or received an A- instead of an A? Find out why winning the silver is…a bummer."

The article's abstract is:
Research on counterfactual thinking has shown that people's emotional responses to events are influenced by their thoughts about "what might have been." The authors extend these findings by documenting a familiar occasion in which those who are objectively better off nonetheless feel worse. In particular, an analysis of the emotional reactions of bronze and silver medalists at the 1992 Summer Olympics -- both at the conclusion of their events and on the medal stand -- indicates that bronze medalists tend to be happier than silver medalists. The authors attribute these results to the fact that the most compelling counterfactual alternative for the silver medalist is winning the gold, whereas for the bronze medalist it is finishing without a medal. Support for this interpretation was obtained from the 1992 Olympics and the 1994 Empire State Games. The discussion focuses on the implications of endowment and contrast for well being.
I particularly enjoyed Britt's analysis of the article, and his (minor) critique. He also offers some intriguing suggestions for extensions of the study. If you want some psychology to go along with your Olympics, this is a good place to look.

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