Imagine that you are an Olympic athlete. You have performed admirably and are stepping up to the podium to receive a medal for being one of the top three athletes at the game. Question: would you rather receive the silver or the bronze medal?
The logical answer would be that the silver medal is better, as second place is better than third. It is clear that the person who came second performed better and will also receive a more valuable prize. However, the opposite is true in reality.
In 1995, psychologists Victoria Medvec, Scott Madey and Thomas Gilovich studied video recordings and interviews of athletes from the Atlanta Summer Olympic Games. They studied facial expressions of medalists and noted a stark contrast between those who won gold, silver and bronze.
Obviously, the gold medalists were ecstatic and were not afraid to show this. By contrast, silver medalists rarely smiled immediately after their achievement, often showing flashes of sadness or contempt instead. They would usually smile on the podium as they received the medal, but compared to bronze and gold medalists, they were far more likely to show a fake smile rather than a Duchenne smile – a true, involuntary smile associated with happiness.
Interestingly, those who won bronze looked far happier than the silver medalists.
This effect has been reported through other observational studies, such as a 2006 study that looked at athletes in the 2004 Athens Olympic Games.
In fact, almost everyone will have had similar experiences where coming second place somehow feels worse than not doing well in a tournament at all. This is because of counterfactual thinking.
Counterfactuals are essentially “What if?” scenarios that we dream up in our heads. Being imaginative creatures, we are prone to thinking of what could have been, then proceed to have regrets or be disappointed by something that never even happened. The closer we get to our goals, the bigger the disappointment we have when we fail to achieve it.
We all fall victim to counterfactual thinking. We often wonder what would have happened had we taken action earlier, or did something slightly differently, then lament that the best case scenario did not happen. We compare our reality to a hypothetical situation and become frustrated.
Many studies have confirmed this in various settings, showing that objective achievement means nothing in the face of the subjective perception of the achievement. Even if you work hard and get an A- in an assignment, you could be sad and stressed that you did not get an A+.
A simple antidote to counterfactual thinking is turning it on its head. Instead of thinking that it is a shame that you didn’t achieve gold, be glad that you achieved such a high result. Instead of fretting that you did not get the best mark, imagine how bad it would had been if you had failed. Instead of lamenting that you had a bad day, be grateful that you did not have an ill fortune such as being hit by a bus or suffering a brain aneurysm rupture.
At the end of the day, the problem with counterfactual thinking is that it is based on our own imagination. We are creating stress in our own heads, actively choosing to be unhappy.
Because of our high expectations, we fail to enjoy the pleasures of life or appreciate the absolute value of our achievements. We forget that we don’t have to be the best or that we don’t have to win every game.
We forget to be content.