What Might Have Been Thinking and Satisfaction Among Olympic Medalists
Abstract (via Cornell & Toledo)
Research on counterfactual thinking has shown that people’s emotional responses to events are influenced by their thoughts about “what might have been.” The authors extend thesefindingsby documenting a familiar occasion in which those who are objectively better off nonetheless feel worse. In particular, an analysis of the emotional reactions of bronze and silver medalists at the 1992 Sum- mer Olympics—both at the conclusion of their events and on the medal stand—indicates that bronze medalists tend to be happier than silver medalists. The authors attribute these results to the fact that the most compelling counterfactual alternative for the silver medalist is winning the gold, whereas for the bronze medalist it is finishing without a medal. Support for this interpretation was obtained from the 1992 Olympics and the 1994 Empire State Games. The discussion focuses on the implications of endowment and contrast for well being.
Introduction (via Cornell & Toledo)
So we have the paradox of a man shamed to death because he is only the second pugilist or the second oarsman in the world. That he is able to beat the whole population of the globe minus one is nothing; he has “pitted” himself to beat that one; and as long as he doesn’t do that nothing else counts. (James, 1892, p. 186)
James’s (1892) observation represents an early statement of a fundamental principle of psychology: A person’s objective achievements often matter less than how those accomplishments are subjectively construed. Being one of the best in the world can mean little if it is coded not as a triumph over many, but as a loss to one. Being second best may not be as gratifying as perhaps it should.
Since James’s time, of course, this idea has been both theoretically enriched and extensively documented. Social psychologists have shown that people’s satisfaction with their objective circumstances is greatly affected by how their own circumstances compare with those of relevant others (Festinger, 1954; Suls & Miller, 1977; Taylor & Lobel, 1989). A 5% merit raise can be quite exhilarating until one learns that the person down the hall received an 8% increase. Psychologists have also demonstrated that satisfaction with an outcome likewise depends on how it compares with a person’s original expectations (Atkinson, 1964; Feather, 1967, 1969). Someone who receives a 5% raise might be happier than someone who receives an 8% increase if the former expected less than the latter. Often it is the difference between the actual outcome and the expected outcome, or the actual outcome and the outcomes of others, that is decisive (Crosby, 1976; Olson, Herman, &Zanna, 1986).