Exploring The Silver Medal Psyche

Silver may come before bronze on the Olympic podium, but it lags behind on the happiness scale. Psychologists have discovered that bronze medalists tend to be more satisfied with their prize than silver medalists. Host Guy Raz speaks with chairman of Cornell University's psychology department, Tom Gilovich, about the silver medal blues.

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GUY RAZ, host:

Now a question: Is silver really better than bronze? Here's Jerry Seinfeld's take.

Mr. JERRY SEINFELD (Comedian): I think if I was an Olympic athlete, I would rather come in last than win the silver, if you think about it. You know, you win the gold, you feel good. You win the bronze, you think, well, at least I got something. But you win that silver, that's like congratulations, you almost won. Of all the losers, you came in first of that group.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SEINFELD: You're the number one loser.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Jerry Seinfeld may actually be on to something here. A group of psychologists actually studied the effects of winning silver versus bronze, and they found out that, on average, taking the bronze is much more satisfying than getting silver.

Tom Gilovich is the chairman of Cornell's psychology department, and he co-authored that study. Welcome to the program.

Professor TOM GILOVICH (Psychology, Cornell University; Chairman, Cornell University's Psychology Department): Thanks for having me on.

RAZ: Explain this to me. For the last two weeks, we've seen gold, silver and bronze medalists up on the podium in Vancouver. We all know the gold medal winners are, you know, elated. That's a given. But you're saying that bronze winners are actually happier than the folks who get silver. Why is that?

Prof. GILOVICH: Well, it's really what Jerry Seinfeld said on the clip that you played. The bronze medalist realizes what they have, a medal, and compares that to what they almost did not have. They're one step away from no medal. And that feels good. So it fosters a psychology of, well, at least I have a medal, whereas the silver medalist is one step away from the coveted gold, and that fosters a psychology of, oh, if only. If only I'd done this slightly different.

RAZ: Now, you actually studied this scientifically. You wrote a paper on it. And how did you do your research?

Prof. GILOVICH: We videotaped all of NBC's coverage of the '92 Olympics from Barcelona, Spain, and edited out all of the scenes where they would depict the ending of a race in the pool or on the track, and so as soon as you see the determination of who wins gold, silver, bronze, the camera would often focus on their face.

We'd have individuals who, they would just judge them on a 10-point scale, how happy does this person look?

RAZ: Based on their expressions.

Prof. GILOVICH: Yes.

RAZ: And they found that?

Prof. GILOVICH: The silver medalists were significantly less happy-looking than the bronze medalists, and that was verified also in terms of how they looked on the medal stands later on.

RAZ: Have you interviewed any athletes and asked them about their experiences?

Prof. GILOVICH: We also videotaped interviews of the athletes conducted in the studio after the event, and we had coders code the comments, and there were many more comments to the effect of at least I, on the part of bronze medalists, at least I got this medal, whereas the commentary on the part of the silver medalists was if only, many more statements to that effect. And we also went to New York State's athletic competition, the Empire State Games, and interviewed athletes directly, and they articulated the same kind of counterfactual thinking that we had hypothesized.

RAZ: So, I mean, do you have a sense of how long that regret lasts for silver medalists?

Prof. GILOVICH: We were unable to track that, although we ended our paper with an account of a long-distance runner who was well ahead and then faded at the end and got the silver medal, and he said, when he was 92 years old, that a day doesn't go by when he doesn't think of how he let the gold slip away.

RAZ: Oh, man because...

Mr. GILOVICH: Those kinds of thoughts last for a long time.

RAZ: That's Tom Gilovich. He is the head of the psychology department at Cornell University.

Tom Gilovich, thanks so much.

Prof. GILOVICH: Thank you.

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