The Joy of Third Place

Is third better than second place? It seems to be better if you are in the Olympics. Psychologists at Cornell University say their research shows bronze-medal winners are generally happier than silver medalists. Here's the reason: When you come in second place you focus on what you might have done differently in order to win. Come in third and you’re happy just to get a medal.

The phenomenon of "what if" reasoning (knows as Counterfactual thinking) leads us to imagine how things could have been different rather than on what actually has happened. The bronze winners generally think “what if” I hadn’t won anything and realize how fortunate they are to be on the podium at all. But for the silver medalist, “what if” means pondering the little things that might have turned silver to gold.

It seems counterfactual thinking plays out, not just in games, but in every day life. If a student misses making a grade of "A" by one point, having a "B" is no longer so satisfying.

"Would I be happier today if only I had married someone else?" “What if I had attended a different school or majored in another field?” “Suppose I had selected a different profession?”

Miss a flight by five minutes and you are frustrated. But if there’s no way you could make the flight you don't waste time on it. It's like the football team losing in the final seconds of a game. If the team had gotten blown out, then the players can more easily put it behind them and move on. But when victory was so very close, they can always think of little things they might have done differently to affect the outcome.  

Do you puzzle over what you might have done until you what-if yourself into dissatisfaction? Do you get stuck thinking about what almost happened? Do you feel like you are the silver medalist in life?

It's worth noting that first place has its pitfalls as well. Research shows the first runner in a long-distance race puts in three times more effort maintaining that position than the runner-up. The researchers recommend when you are in the lead to focus on the struggle with one’s self rather than the pace of the other runners.

Stephen Goforth