For many Olympic champions, silver hurts greater than bronze

At the 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing, a desperate Alexandra Trusova won silver and immediately declared“I will never skate again.” Swimmer Michael Phelps showed a combination of frustration and disappointment on the 2012 Olympic Games in London, when he added a silver medal to his collection of gold medals. At the identical Games, gymnast McKayla Maroney won grim facial features on the winner's podium went viral.

These staring moments reveal a surprising pattern: silver medalists often appear less joyful than bronze medalists.

In a 2021 study we conducted with our research associate Raelyn Rouner, We investigated whether there may be any truth to this phenomenon.

Recognizing disappointment

When athletes from all over the world gather in Paris this summer for the thirty third Olympiad, lots of them will likely be on the opening ceremony dreaming of gold.

But what happens if these goals are narrowly missed?

We examined photographs of 413 Olympic athletes taken during medal ceremonies between 2000 and 2016. The photos come from the Olympic World Library And Getty Images and included athletes from 67 countries. We even have Sports Illustrated's Predictions for the Olympic finalsbecause we desired to see if the facial expressions of athletes modified once they exceeded expectations or performed below average.

To analyze the photos, we used a type of artificial intelligence that recognizes facial expressions. By using AI to quantify facial muscle activation, we were capable of eliminate the necessity for research assistants. to manually encode the expressionsthereby reducing the potential of personal bias. The algorithm identified the shapes and positions of the athletes' mouth, eyes, eyebrows, nose and other facial parts that indicate a smile.

Even though the runners-up performed objectively higher than the third-place finishers, the AI ​​found that the bronze medalists appeared happier on average than the silver medalists.

Close miss

So why does this occur?

The answer has to do with what psychologists call “counterfactual thinking”, which refers to when people imagine things that didn’t occur but could have happened.

Against this background, there are two major explanations for this medal phenomenon.

A young woman twists her mouth, holds a small bouquet of flowers and folds her arms.
US gymnast McKayla Maroney doesn’t appear to be satisfied along with her silver medal on the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

First, silver medalists and bronze medalists form different points of comparison – so-called category-based counterfactual statements.

Silver medalists make an upward comparison and picture a unique final result – “I almost won gold.” Bronze medalists, however, make a downward comparison: “At least I won a medal” or “It could have been worse.”

The direction of this comparison shows how relative luck may be. For silver medalists, almost winning gold is a cause for disappointment, while for a bronze medalist, simply standing on the winner's podium is a source of satisfaction.

We also indicate a second reason for this phenomenon: medal winners form something that expectation-based counterfactual statements.

Some silver medalists are disillusioned because they expected higher performances. Maroney's famous grimace is one example. Sports Illustrated predicted that she would win the gold medal by a big marginIn other words, anything lower than gold was an enormous disappointment for Maroney.

We found evidence consistent with each category-based and expectation-based counterfactual accounts of Olympic medalists' facial expressions. Not surprisingly, our evaluation also found that gold medalists smiled far more often than the opposite two medalists, and that folks who performed higher than expected also smiled more often, no matter their medal.

Previous studies couldn’t be thoroughly tested this phenomenon. But through the use of artificial intelligence, we were capable of test these two theories for the primary time on a big and diverse image dataset.

Smiling just isn’t a window to the soul

It is very important to notice that these results don’t provide any insight into how the athletes actually felt once they won bronze or silver.

Smiles may be faked for the cameras. Sometimes people smile in the event that they feel uncomfortable or uneasy.

We cannot due to this fact say with absolute certainty that there’s a direct connection between facial expressions and emotions. Nevertheless, these external expressions of emotion retain their communicative power and offer insight into the emotions of athletes.

Our findings have implications beyond the Olympics. Whether you're competing in a spelling bee, applying for a job, or running for political office, coming in second generally is a disappointment.

Changing your perception of success can actually make you more satisfied along with your performance. This is particularly true whenever you take pride in a job well refrained from comparisons or expectations.

Second place all the time has its good sides.

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