The Less-Is-Better Effect, Distilled
why Olympic bronze medalists are happier than silver medalists
Estimated reading time of this week’s Distilled: 4 minutes, 15 seconds
Yesterday morning I woke up to the news that Simone Biles dropped out of the team gymnastics final, and Team USA won silver. The USA women’s gymnastics team has won every year since 2011, so a lot of the media coverage was framing it as an unexpected disappointment.
Meanwhile, the Great Britain team low-key snuck past Japan into third place, and I couldn’t help thinking about how much happier than the USA they must be. Even though Team USA got the better result, Team GB was over the moon because it’s their first women’s team gymnastics medal since 1928.
In fact, many Olympic bronze medalists are happier than silver medalists. Watch the podium at each event and you’ll see what I’m talking about. The athlete standing in third place often looks so much more thrilled to be there than the athlete in second, even though the second-place athlete technically did better.
Here is the Internet-famous reaction from Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui, bronze medalist at the Rio Olympics:
The less-is-better effect can help explain this phenomenon. It’s a cognitive bias: Whether we perceive something as “better” depends on the context.
Here are a few examples of less-is-better from academic research:
An overfilled ice cream serving with 7 oz of ice cream was valued more than an underfilled serving with 8 oz of ice cream
A dinnerware set with 24 intact pieces was judged more favorably than one with 31 intact pieces (including the same 24) plus a few broken ones.
MBA students who were asked to evaluate various hypothetical job offers preferred lower-paying jobs for employers who paid other similarly qualified employees similar salaries, to higher-paying jobs for employers who paid other employees more.
One cause of the less-is-better effect is counterfactual thinking. Stick with me here because this part’s important: Counterfactual thinking is our tendency to imagine hypothetical alternatives to life events that have already happened.
In other words, we think a lot about what could have been. We ask ourselves, “What if?”
A downward counterfactual is a thought about how the situation could have been worse (resulting in a more positive outlook). An upward counterfactual is about how the situation could have been better (a more negative outlook).
As a result, people who are objectively better off can feel worse if they are focused too much on the upward counterfactual of “what could have been” — which is why people look at an objectively better dinner set and can only focus on the broken pieces. We see an objectively bigger ice cream serving and only think about the fact that the cup isn’t full. It’s the glass-half-empty mentality.
And in the case of the Olympics, “what could have been” looks different depending on where you’re standing on the podium. For the silver medalist, “what could have been” is an upward counterfactual: the gold medal. And for the bronze, “what could have been” is a downward counterfactual: not winning anything.
Researchers actually did an analysis of Olympic medalists to put this to the test. Here are the findings:
In particular, an analysis of the emotional reactions of bronze and silver medalists at the 1992 Summer 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.
For a second-place winner, the imagined alternative is first place. But for a third-place winner, the imagined alternative is not placing at all.
We see this all the time outside of the Olympics. In Formula 1 racing (which I’m currently very into), getting third place or better is called “making podium.” For teams who are going for 4th and 5th place, making podium is HUGE. Whenever a driver from one of the midfield teams gets third, they are the most excited person on the podium. The person in second is usually unhappy because it’s one of the two drivers always battling for first.
And here’s a personal example: When I joined my sorority in college, it was still a new house and we were determined to establish ourselves as contenders in Greek competitions. We really wanted to be a dance powerhouse, so the annual lip-synching dance competition benefitting MS nonprofits (Rockin’ Against Multiple Sclerosis, or RAMS) was a big one. We had to compete against insanely good dancers in the 14 other houses who had been doing RAMS for years.
No one expected us to make an impression because we were so new to the game, so you should have seen our faces when we won second:
Our happy screams drowned out the team that had actually won first. We were the most stoked second place winners in history, because the expected outcome was that we wouldn’t place. If we had been the first place winner year after year, we would have been pissed to come in second. Instead it was one of our proudest moments.
Even though Team USA took second place in gymnastics today, I hope the team is proud of their performance. After Simone stepped out, it was up to her teammates to deliver, and they DELIVERED. They were ridiculously good. It’s a feat to win silver, and even more so under the circumstances. The headlines should have read: “USA Wins Silver After Team Rallies to Pull Off a Stunning Performance.” Not “Simone Biles Pulls Out Of Gymnastics Team Finals As Team USA Loses Gold To Russia,” which is how a lot of the news framed it. The team didn’t lose anything. They won something.
So how do we feel like we’re winning at life? Well, there’s always going to be someone “better off” than us in some way (someone, somewhere, at this moment, has an In-N-Out burger in their possession, and I am jealous of that person). But maybe instead of comparing ourselves to that person, we can compare ourselves to ourselves. Instead of being the silver medalist looking at the gold medalist, we can be the bronze medalist focusing on what we’ve already won.
Scientific American: Speed Dating and Decision-Making: Why Less Is More
Hop take: Beer of the week
This Beer Really Ties the Room Together, Jagged Mountain Brewery
I had the loveliest beer at Jagged Mountain last weekend, a neighborhood brewery that makes some unique stuff. I tried the “This Beer Really Ties the Room Together,” a White Russian-inspired milk stout brewed with cacao nibs from Ethereal Confections and coffee from Ozo Coffee Company. Um, yes. I love a coffee-forward beer. And it wasn’t too sweet — it was smooth and creamy and still beer-like.
Extra points for the Big Lebowski reference.
Happy Wednesday! You’re all gold winners in my book for reading this newsletter. And if you feel bummed about the fact that it’s Wednesday, think like a bronze medalist and remember that at least it’s not Tuesday. (Also, I think the cheerier bronze mentality applies to Wednesdays. Thursdays have a totally silver medal vibe).