After placing third in the 100-meter men’s breaststroke finals this week, American Brendan Hansen was beaming. “This is the shiniest bronze medal you will ever see,” Hansen said. “Ever.” Not surprising, reports NPR. Psychologists have long noted a distinct difference in the emotional reactions of elite athletes who finish second and those who finish third.
“Silver medalists may torment themselves with counter-factual thoughts, of ‘If only…’ or ‘Why didn’t I just,’” the researchers wrote in a study published after the 1992 Olympics. “Bronze medalists, in contrast, may be soothed by the thought that, ‘At least I won a medal.’”
In Hansen’s case, reaching the podium was even sweeter because he’d finished in fourth place in Beijing. In contrast, witness Viktoria Komova’s meltdown after she learned of her silver medal in the all-around gymnastics competition. In team sports, the explanation might seem obvious: the gold and silver medals are decided in the final match, so silver medalists leave on a losing note, whereas the bronze medalists play in a separate match and leave on a victorious note. But even when the researchers left out those particular setups, the effect remained.
“Finishing second is truly a mixed blessing. Performing that well provides a number of direct benefits that increase our well-being: recognition from others, boosts to self-esteem, and so on,” the researchers wrote. “At the same time, it can indirectly lower satisfaction by the unfortunate contrast with what might have been.” Via Gold, Silver, or Bronze: Who’s the Happiest?