By guest blogger Bradley Busch
To win a medal of any kind at the Olympic Games takes years of training, hard work and sacrifice. Standing on an Olympic podium is widely regarded as the pinnacle of an athlete’s career. Nonetheless, only one athlete can win gold, leaving the two runner-up medallists to ponder what might have been. Intriguingly a seminal study from the 1992 Olympic Games suggested that this counterfactual thinking was especially painful for silver medallists, who appeared visibly less happy than bronze medallists. The researchers speculated that this may have been because of the different counterfactual thinking they engaged in, with bronze medallists being happy that they didn’t come fourth while silver medallists felt sad that they didn’t win gold.
However, subsequent research based on the 2000 Olympic Games did not replicate this finding: this time silver medallists were found to be happier than bronze medallists. To further muddy the waters, a study from the 2004 Games was consistent with the seminal research, finding that straight after competition, gold and bronze medallists were more likely to smile than silver medallists, with these smiles being larger and more intense.
Now further insight into the psychology of coming second or third comes via Mark Allen, Sarah Knipler and Amy Chan of the University of Wollongong, who have released their findings based on the 2016 Olympic Games. These latest results, published in Journal of Sports Sciences, again challenge that initial eye-grabbing result that suggested bronze medallists are happier than silver medallists, but they support the idea that the nature of counterfactual thinking differs depending on whether athletes come second or third.
In the first study, the researchers had 20 participants rate how happy 486 Olympic medallists looked whilst standing on the podium. The participants based their judgments on full headshot photos of each athlete, deliberately cropped so that they could not see which medal the athletes had won.
Participants rated gold medal athletes as being significantly happier than those who won either silver or bronze. They rated bronze medallists as marginally happier than silver medallists, though by such a small margin that it is “likely to be trivial or negligible”, according to Allen and his team.
In their second study, the researchers explored how much counterfactual thinking the different athletes did by having participants analyse the media interviews of 192 silver and bronze medallists. They explored frequency (i.e. how much they dwelt on “what if…” scenarios), direction (i.e. what things could have gone better vs. what things could have been worse) and reference (i.e. reflecting on what they could have done differently vs. what their opponent could have done differently).
They found that silver medallists engaged more frequently in counterfactual thinking than bronze medallists, and that this was likely to be directed towards how the event could have gone better. Interestingly, both silver and bronze medallists primarily focused on their own performance, but silver medallists more often than bronze medallists also spent time talking about how their opponents had performed.
This study provides updated evidence that suggests that gold medallists are happiest on the podium and that no meaningful difference exists in happiness levels between silver and bronze medallists. However, the thought process and reflections between second and third-placed athletes do seem to vary, with silver medallists being more preoccupied by thoughts of how things could have been better and what would have happened if their opponents had behaved differently. These thought processes may act as a defence mechanism in order to protect their self-esteem and self-image. By reflecting on external factors, such as their opponent’s behaviour, it provides a shield to hide behind and deflect personal criticism away from any shortcomings of their own individual performance.
This study builds on previous research by using a larger sample size, blinding the participants to the outcome of the athletes’ medals, and by using equivalence tests to supplement standard statistical methods (such tests help identify whether a statistically significant finding is actually meaningful). That being said, the researchers note several important limitations, such as that some athletes were so well known that the participants probably knew what medal they had earned.
Other limitations include only using static photos of the athletes posing for the media on top of the podium. If that was to be broadened out to include either video footage or full body shots, this may be beneficial as evidence suggests that body language may be a better indicator of emotions than facial expressions.
This research makes a valuable contribution given the mixed findings previously reported. Furthermore, it may inform sports psychologists and coaches who work with athletes that have finished second or third in major competitions, helping them to provide appropriately tailored support.
Image: RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – AUGUST 21, 2016: Nikola Karabatic of France (C) reacts on the podium during the medal ceremony for Men’s Handball after winning the silver medal following the Men’s Gold Medal Match between Denmark and France on Day 16 of the Rio Olympic Games. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
Post written by Bradley Busch (@Inner_Drive) for the BPS Research Digest. Bradley is a registered psychologist and director of InnerDrive. He has worked with Premiership and International footballers and is the author of Release Your InnerDrive