BBC Future column: What a silver medal teaches us about regret

Here’s my column from last week for BBC Future. The original is here

The London 2012 Olympic Games are almost over now, and those Olympians with medals are able to relax and rest on the laurels of victory. Or so you might think. Spare a thought for the likes of Yohan Blake, McKayla Maroney, or Emily Seebohm – those people who are taking home silver.

Yes, that’s right, I’m asking you to feel sorry for silver medallists, not for the bronze medallists or for those who didn’t get the chance to stand on the podium at all.

Research has shown that silver medallists feel worse, on average, than bronze medallists. (Gold medallists, obviously, feel best of all.) The effect is written all over their faces, as psychologists led by Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University found out when they collected footage of the medallists at the 1992 Olympic games in Barcelona. Gilovich’s team looked at images of medal winners either at the end of events – that is, when they had just discovered their medal position – or as they collected their medals on the podium. They then asked volunteers who were ignorant of the athlete’s medal position to rate their facial expressions. Sure enough, the volunteers rated bronze medallists as consistently and significantly happier than silver medallists, both immediately after competing, and on the podium.

The reason is all to do with how bronze and silver medallists differ in the way they think events could have turned out – what psychologists call “counterfactual thinking”. In a follow-up study, the team went to the 1994 Empire State Games and interviewed athletes immediately after they had competed. Silver medallists were more likely to use phrases like “I almost…”, concentrating their responses on what they missed out on. Bronze medallists, on the other hand, tended to contemplate the idea of missing out on a medal altogether. These differences in counterfactual thinking make silver medallists feel unlucky, in comparison to a possible world where they could have won gold, and make bronze medallists feel lucky, in comparison to a possible world where they could have returned home with nothing.

So the research seems to add a bit of scientific meat to Hamlet’s famous line “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so“, as well as revealing something about the psychology of regret. Even though we must deal with the world as it is, a vital part of life is imagining the world as it could be – thinking about a job you should have applied for (or said “no” to), or someone you should (or shouldn’t) have asked out on a date, for instance.

Haunted by the past

Different possible worlds crowd compete, some seeming closer than others, and this is what drives regret. This is illustrated by a study that asked volunteers to read a story about a plane crash survivor who walked through the wilderness for days, collapsing and die before reaching civilisation. They were then asked how much compensation the victim’s family should receive. People who read a version where the survivor collapsed 75 miles (120 kilometres) from safety awarded less compensation than those who read that the survivor collapsed just a quarter of a mile from safety.

Both scenarios ended the same, but the second version seems more tragic to us because the person seemed so much closer to safety. Remember that the next time you see a Hollywood film that plays with your emotions in this manner.

Understanding the psychology of regret also helps to put our own thoughts and emotions into context. We’re all haunted by things we could have done, or shouldn’t have done. What’s the point in dwelling on such matters, we may ask, when we can’t change the past? But the study of the Olympic medallists gives us two thoughts that might help us deal with regret.

The first is that regret, like imagination generally, exists for a reason – this amazing cognitive ability is what allows us to plan for the future and, with luck, change things based on how we imagine they might turn out. Medallists who feel more regret may well go on to train harder, and smarter, and so be better able to win gold at the next Olympics. Regret, like so many of the territories of the mind, can hurt. It hurts whether we can change how things have worked out, or not, but the feeling is built into our brains for a good reason (however little comfort that provides).

The second thought that might help us deal with regret is to realise that there are many possible worlds we could compare events to. It’s natural for many silver medallists to feel that they’ve missed out on gold, and to the extent we can choose what we compare ourselves to, we can choose how we feel about our regrets. We can use them to drive us to future success, but also to appreciate what we do have.

So maybe it isn’t all bad for Blake, Maroney or Seebohm after all?

8 thoughts on “BBC Future column: What a silver medal teaches us about regret”

  1. “Remember that the next time you see a Hollywood film that plays with your emotions in this manner.”

    The classic, of course, is the cop who gets shot on the day before retirement. It should, logically, be much sadder for them to die younger. But it doesn’t ever work that way.

    1. @Tom To paraphrase Hamlet, it all depends how you look at it. You can choose to consider that a young police never got to live his adult life, nor make a career, which is (assumingly) sad. Or you can think that the pre-retirement victim never got to live his remaining well-deserved years of peace and freedom, after a lifetime of work. Sad again.
      Or you can wonder if any of the above is actually worth of any assumption. Is spending your life as a policeman definitely a career? Is is really good to retire and abruptly change pace & habits after decades of work? Can one truly hope his retirement to be about peace and freedom, rather than mental, physical & social degradation?
      I’d say that such plot tricks and setups are simply a catalyst for whatever reaction you are naturally inclined to have. Funny thing is, if you want to be smarter and resist going with the flow, you’d probably end up not having any more fun watching a movie. Detachment can kill.

  2. I think to some extent a silver medalist\’s regret vs. joy is dependent on what their expectation was going into the event. Particularly when that expectation was realistic based on past performance. In McKayla Maroney’s case, she was clearly the favorite to win gold, being pretty much objectively considered the best vaulter ever. So when she failed to land her second vault and had to ”settle” for silver, it was understandably a big shock and disappointment. Similarly, in the men’s 10m platform diving final, Qui Bo was ”supposed” to win, so he was clearly disappointed to get silver. While in contrast, Tom Daley, without the high expectations, was elated to win bronze.

    I also find the final rounds of the elimination-type events (tennis, volleyball, etc.) to be interesting from a similar psychological point of view. The loser of the gold medal match gets silver, but ends the competition with a loss. While the winner of the bronze medal match gets ”only” bronze, but ends the competition with a win. Almost invariably, those bronze medal winners appear much happier than the silver medal ”losers.”

  3. Seeing as how “hindsight is 20/20” (no science there, just a saying)I wonder if the silver metalists change their minds 5 years down the road. Once they calm down and get some perspective, wouldn’t they eventually feel proud at their achievement?

    On a much less relevant note: want to have some fun? I have a hypothesis that reality cooking shows film the opening segments (and the interviews) after the producers are done filming. I’ve decided (based on nothing logical) I can predict who won the show based on the facial expressions of the contestants in the opening segments alone.

    Like the silver metalists, it’s not always the winning chef who goes on to fame and fortune. Does anyone remember that Ilan guy who won Top Chef? No. It’s Marcel who went on to become popular and get all sorts of tv spots.

  4. This reminds me of the cutting in line study where people closer to the front of the line were more likely to object than people at the rear of the line. I think this is referenced in Aronson’s Social Animal.

  5. I’d like to see the next statistical research where they compare the average evolution of winners and non winners.
    Say, what happened on subsequent competitions (if any!) for each of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd positions, as well as the top non-winner? Did they go up, did they go down, did they repeat? Or maybe abandoned altogether?

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