During the Winter Olympics I recalled a classic paper that explored how counterfactual thoughts impacted emotions (some days later the paper was discussed by Cass Sunstein on his blog here, again in light of Sochi). Simply put the theory is that, in terms of happiness, finishing 3rd and receiving a bronze was a better outcome than finishing 2nd.
An interesting twist on this is often suggested this time of year during the football league play-offs when I here fans argue that teams are better off finishing 6th in a league and narrowly reaching the play-offs, rather than finishing 3rd and achieving the same feat. The folk psychology goes that those finishing 3rd are disappointed for not getting promoted automatically (upward comparison), while those finishing 6th view entry to the play-offs as a lucky bonus to potentially play in the ‘most expensive game’ in football. The team that are 3rd have the added pressure of being play-off favourites while the 6th team don’t face the same expectancy levels or psychological angst of a near miss.
I didn’t have time to collect all the data yet but from looking at the Championship/old First Division play-offs from 1992 (since it began in its current format) approximately 35% of the winners (the most) were 3rd in the league. Only 13% of the play-off winners finished 4th in the League and were the fewest. I need to collect more data for other leagues but the story of ‘being better off finishing 6th’ at the moment, looks like one for the myth list!
More to follow.