Thinking about the upcoming Winter Olympics reminded me of a classic paper by Medvec, Gilovich & Madey in 1995 - When Less Is More: Counterfactual Thinking and Satisfaction among Olympic Medallists in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
The authors explored how counterfactual thoughts impacted emotions by analysing the reaction of bronze and silver medallists in the 1992 Olympic Games at the end of specific events and when athletes mounted the podium.
The essence of their theory was that, in terms of happiness, finishing 3rd and receiving a bronze was a better outcome than finishing 2nd. The authors concluded that winning the bronze gives greater happiness than winning the silver as those that win silver think about the counterfactual alternative: what if I had won the gold? In contrast to this, the bronze winner compares themself to the rest of the field that didn't get near the podium.
As Medvec and Savitsky explained in a paper two years later, receiving a bronze elicits a downward counterfactual comparison, while receiving silver elicits an upward one. In this regard we may not weigh up our achievements objectively and rather compare what we have achieved to 'what could have been'.
In 2005 McGraw, Mellers & Tetlock carried out three studies of the 2000 Summer Olympics in Australia. The authors suggested that Olympic athletes are more likely to make counterfactual comparisons based on their prior expectations (the idea that silver medallists having higher expectations had been ruled out in the first study) and found that surprising outcomes produce stronger emotional reactions.
Perhaps finishing second in sports competitions can really be a mixed blessing but as Medvec, Gilovich & Madey ask near the end of the paper; does the immediate happiness effect only last over a short run period and are we likely to look back more fondly on second place in years to come?