Why psychologists say it's better to win a bronze medal than silver

Simone biles bronzeLars Baron/Getty ImagesSimone Biles, left, won bronze in the women’s balance beam final.

All Olympic athletes want to win gold. But if they can’t make the top spot on the podium, they might want to shoot for bronze over silver. There’s scientific evidence showing that bronze medalists tend to be happier than silver medalists, CNN reports

Why? Psychologists attribute the phenomenon to a concept called counterfactual thinking — essentially, our tendency to imagine alternative outcomes to events that have already occurred. Silver medalists get hung up thinking about the alternative outcome they were so close to achieving: winning gold. Bronze medalists, on the other hand, tend to just be happy they made it onto the podium.

“[Silver medalists] compare themselves to the gold medalist and thereby think of what they didn’t achieve,” Thomas Gilovich, professor of psychology at Cornell University, told CNN. “The bronze medalists also focus on what didn’t happen: They didn’t come in fourth and fail to get a medal.”

CNN points out two excellent real-life examples: Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui was thrilled to win bronze in Rio, but McKayla Maroney was “not impressed” with her silver medal four years ago in London. 

Bronze and silver medal reactionsGetty Images/Al Bello, Ronald MartinezFu Yuanhui, left, and McKayla Maroney.

In 1995, Gilovich conducted a study in which volunteers watched video footage of Olympians reacting to winning medals, then rated the athletes’ perceived satisfaction. The trick was that the volunteers didn’t know whether the athletes in the videos had won gold, silver, or bronze. 

Researchers found that the volunteers rated bronze medalists’ reactions as happier, on average, than those of silver medalists. 

Other scientists have even studied the smiles of athletes after they win medals. A 2006 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology analysed 84 photos of Olympic judo athletes and found the bronze medalists actually have more genuine smiles.

Kerri walsh jennings april ross rio olympicsGetty Images/Ezra ShawKerri Walsh Jennings, left, and April Ross won beach volleyball bronze in Rio.

“These are smiles that involve […] the muscle around the eyes, which lifts the cheeks, narrow the eyelids and produces crow’s feet wrinkles,” David Matsumoto, professor of psychology at San Francisco State University and lead author of the study, told CNN.

But silver medalists didn’t smile with those eye muscles, indicating that “they were smiling to be polite but were not really happy,” Matsumoto said.

Need even more proof that bronze is better? This joyful Snapchat from Simone Biles after she wobbled on balance beam and ended up with bronze says it all:

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