In the Rio Olympic Stadium, everyone is going for gold. But eagle-eyed spectators might notice that Olympians who win a bronze medal in their sport actually look more thrilled about the result than those who win silver. And it turns out there’s a simple scientific explanation.
The agony and the ecstasy
In 1995, a study was conducted in which undergrads watched footage of the 1992 Olympics and were asked to rank each medal-winning athlete by how happy they looked on the podium, on a 1 to 10 scale ranging from “agony” to ”ecstasy.” Silver medallists averaged a happiness score of 4.8, while bronze medallists actually ranked higher, with an average of 7.1.
It all comes down to counterfactual thinking, or what might have been. In the case of silver medallists, they’re more likely to focus on what they could have won, rather than what they did win, while bronze winners are more likely to be grateful for the fact that they made the top three.
“The most obvious counterfactual thought for the silver medallist might be to focus on almost winning gold,” writes Jason G. Goldman in Scientific American. “She would focus on the difference between coming in first place, and any other outcome. The bronze medallist, however, might focus their counterfactual thoughts downward towards fourth place. She would focus on almost not winning a medal at all. The categorical difference, between being a medallist and not winning a medal, does not exist for the comparison between first and second place.”
Just look at Team GB diving duo Tom Daley and Daniel Goodfellow at Rio 2016; they won bronze in their event last week, but famously embraced poolside and celebrated with far more abandon than the other medallists.
“No Olympian is rooting for silver,” says Quartz’s Ananya Bhattacharya. “That’s just a reminder of the gold you lost out on.”