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McKayla Maroney © Getty

Olympics: A psychologist explains why finishing second feels worse than third

Published: 04th August, 2021 at 14:00
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The science of why athletes like McKayla Maroney (pictured) often seem unsatisfied with silver.

If you could choose, ahead of a big competition, whether you finish third or second, you’d choose second, right?


Of course – and yet a study from the mid-1990s, based on analysis of athletes’ emotional displays at the Barcelona Olympics, found that bronze medallists showed more positive emotion than silver medallists (with gold medallists happiest).

The most popular explanation is that silver medallists engage in a specific form of ‘counterfactual thinking’ – that is, they regret missing out on what might have been, if only they’d pushed a little harder.

In contrast, those in third place compare downwards and are relieved that they managed to earn a medal at all. Later research conducted at the London 2012 Olympics seemed to back up this interpretation – among gold and bronze medallists, the better their performance, the happier they looked.

But this wasn’t the case for those who came second, perhaps because the better their performance, the greater their regret at not having won.

More recently, a study of athletes at the Rio Olympics actually found negligible differences in the happiness displays of silver and bronze medallists, but analysis of their post-competition interviews confirmed it really does suck to come second – the silver medallists engaged in far more talk about what might have been.

In short, if you ever find yourself miserable in second place, try taking a leaf out of the bronze medallists’ playbook and be grateful you performed as well as you did!

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Dr Christian Jarrett is a cognitive neuroscientist, science writer and author. He is the Deputy Editor of Psyche, the sister magazine to Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophy and the arts. Jarrett also created the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog and was the first ever staff journalist on the Society's magazine, The Psychologist. He is author of Great Myths of The Brain and Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change.


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