Ranked by achievement, everyone knows that the highest honour is to achieve gold, followed by silver and bronze. When it comes to how happy the medal makes you, however, the order changes – bronze winners tend to be happier than silver.

In 1995, psychologists at Cornell University and the University of Toledo asked students to watch video footage of award ceremonies from the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and rank the performance of happiness of medal winners. Each student was asked to rank happiness on a scale of 1 (agony) to 10 (ecstasy). The average score was dramatically different for silver and bronze winners, with silver displaying an average of 4.8 after their place was announced and 7.1 for bronze.

Experimental Psychology applicants should consider why this might be the case. The researchers posited that this might be because of ‘counterfactual thinking,’ that is, thinking of what might have been. For silver place, counterfactual thinking means they dwell on the gold they could have won, while bronze medallists’ ‘what might have been’ is the possibility of winning no medal at all as that was the nearest, significant outcome. As a result, silver place feels like a failed gold, whereas bronze feels like an achievement when achievement nearly slipped away.

More Resources