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Being acknowledged for professional achievements should feel great, but when it comes to your psyche, coming in last place might feel a lot better than standing somewhere in the middle. In a blog post, Stanford University professor Bob Sutton writes about watching 31-year-old Brendan Hansen’s ecstatic reaction when he won an Olympic bronze medal for the 100 meter breaststroke.
Sutton says the scenario reminded him of a 1995 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that found third place winners are sometimes even happier than second place because the “silver medals winners did upward comparisons to the gold medal winner, while the bronze medalists did downward comparisons to people who didn’t win medals.”
This kind of thought process is called “counterfactual thinking.”
The study says:
“People’s emotional responses to events are influenced by their thoughts about ‘what might have been.’ The authors extend these findings by documenting a familiar occasion in which those who are objectively better off nonetheless feel worse.”
Basically, if you come in second place, you think that you could’ve gotten first place if you had just tried a little harder, whereas if you win with a lower ranking, you may be more relieved because you came so close to not winning anything at all.
“I guess, to put perhaps too fine a point on it, silver medalists see themselves as the first loser, while bronze medalists see themselves as the last winner,” Sutton writes.
Although competitiveness is a good way to challenge yourself, Sutton says that continuously using “counterfactual thinking” isn’t so healthy for your professional life.
If you make this a habit, it can eventually lead to depression and self-doubt.
“Leaders in competitive fields are always comparing themselves to those who came in first, when they might enjoy their success a little more if they learned to compare themselves to those who didn’t come close to winning at all.”
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