The gold medallist is in the first place, the silver medallist comes second and the bronze medallist third. One might expect that athletes’ happiness with their performance would mirror this order too, with the gold medallist being the happiest and the bronze medallist being the unhappiest. But even though the Olympics is all about winning, there are times when less really is more.
The gold medal winner generally appears ecstatic, as expected. However, the silver medallist typically appears less thrilled even than the bronze medallist, who can look almost as pleased as the winner. But why?
Research says this phenomenon can be explained by counterfactual thinking. This means that people compare their objective achievements to what might have been.The study says silver medallists are likely to compare themselves upwards, with the winner, while bronze medallists make downward comparisons to people who didn't win any medals.
At Rio 2016, the ecstatic expression seen on the face of Chinese backstroke swimmer Fu Yuanhui was a prime example. Despite only winning bronze in the 100-metre backstroke, her sheer joy and animated face set her apart.
People's emotional responses to events are influenced by their thoughts about 'what might have been’. So, the silver medallists see themselves as the first loser, while the bronze medallists see themselves as the last winner.
Stanford business school professor Bob Sutton writes about watching bronze winner Brendan Hansen’s elated reaction when he won the 100-metre breaststroke at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
He writes: "People's emotional responses to events are influenced by their thoughts about 'what might have been’. So, the silver medallists see themselves as the first loser, while bronze medallists see themselves as the last winner. If you win a silver, it’s very difficult to not think, 'boy, if I had just gone a little faster at the end’. While the bronze-medal winners might think: 'I could have gotten gold if I had gone faster’, but they are more likely to think, 'that was close, I might not have gotten a medal at all’.”
Counterfactual thinking is "what if" thinking; it can give insights into our daily lives. We often imagine how things could have been different. The sacked employee may ask, "would I be happier today if I had taken a job elsewhere”. Likewise, a floundering student may think, "if only I had chosen another subject, maybe I would have a better shot at getting into university”.
If you get a three percent pay rise, your reaction is likely to depend on whether you focus on the equivalent of the gold (a 10% raise) or something akin to no medal at all, which might be a frozen salary. Depending on what you chose your reference points to be can make all the difference to your happiness.
The glee of gold and the disenchantment of silver may be inevitable on the Olympic podium, but those feelings don’t need to be part of workplace culture. Unfortunately, however, performance evalutions at work can actually discourage strong performers. Employers who understand counterfactual thinking can benefit from using absolute scores, instead of categorising their employees according to rank.
For example, if an employee is given an 80% rating last year and 84% this year, these are both strong performances but communicating it in terms of a four-point gain can help employees understand their progress. There’s still a high standard, but giving an actual score can feel more positive, minimising disappointment.
This approach can avoid “tournaments” developing in the office, where people are often promoted for being relatively better than their peers rather than for just being good at their jobs.Comparative reward structures can backfire in other ways too. They actively discourage co-operation: as Dan Ariely writes in his book Predictably Irrational, “a man’s satisfaction with his salary depends on whether he makes more than his wife’s sister’s husband”.
Therefore, happiness at work often hinges on not knowing what your colleagues earn. People are always comparing themselves to those who appear to have done something better, but if they learn to compare themselves to those who didn’t do as well – like the bronze medallists, they might just be happier.