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Why Bronze Medalists Are Likely Happier Than Those Who Win Silver

British gymnastics beat out Italy for the Olympic bronze on Tuesday, in a huge upset. The win represents the first team medal for Britain in the sport in nearly a century.
Cao Can
Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images
British gymnastics beat out Italy for the Olympic bronze on Tuesday, in a huge upset. The win represents the first team medal for Britain in the sport in nearly a century.

Ah, the sweet, sweet victory of coming in third!

Though it may be hard to tell at the Tokyo Olympic Games with athletes forced to wear masks on the medal podium, it turns out bronze medalists are likely happier than those who win silver.

"It's pretty counterintuitive because the silver medalist just performed better, but we found that third place winners tend to express more happiness after an Olympic event, than those who come in second," Andrea Luangrath, a University of Iowa assistant marketing professor, told NPR.

"Of course," she added, "gold medalists are the happiest of all."

The phenomenon was first analyzed in 1995, but Laungrath and her colleagues — Bill Hedgcock of the University of Minnesota and a former Iowa undergraduate student Raelyn Webster — wanted to find out if it still held true, and more importantly, why silver medalists look so bummed even when they are smiling.

What they came up with is the theory that these world class athletes are viewing their wins through different standards of comparison.

"Silver medalists tend to think about, and compare themselves to, that gold medalist," Laungrath explained. "So they think, 'Maybe if I had only done something different, I could have won that gold medal.' " That sort of thinking can be especially pervasive when the top two positions can be separated by nearly imperceptible milliseconds.

"But that bronze medalist, they're actually forming a downward comparison. And they're thinking, at least I'm not that fourth place finisher. At least I'm not that person who didn't even earn a medal."

The findings were published by the American Psychological Association.

Laungrath and her team came up with the explanation after compiling a database of photos of winners on the podium from the last five Olympic Games, dating back to 2000. They then ran the pictures through software designed to read facial markers, which can tell the difference between someone who's pasted on a smile to cover up their disappointment and someone who is truly smiling.

The researchers also presented a second theory: Silver medalists likely go into a competition expecting they'll perform better than they do. "So when they fall short of those predictions, it can affect their happiness post-competition," Laungrath said.

Meanwhile, a third place finisher is more likely to have performed better than expected, she added.

Great Britain's women's gymnastics team seemed to prove the accuracy of both theories on Tuesday when they took home the bronze after trailing in the competition then narrowly beating out Italy. The unexpected win represented Great Britain's first team gymnastics medal in nearly a century.

"We're all quite speechless. We've made history and got a medal," Amelie Morgan, one of the four gymnasts on the team told The Independent.

Similarly, Molly Richardson, a coach for two of the gymnasts representing Great Britain, notedthat the team had placed sixth in the qualifying round and had not expected to medal at all.

"They're absolutely over the moon," Richardson said, adding, "I'm on cloud nine!"

The event also underscored the disappointment suffered by silver medalists. In this case, Team USA which was expected to dominate the sport this year but, in a huge upset, lost the gold to the Russian team.

Luangrath notes the bronze medalist mentality could be an important take away for even nonathletes going about their noncompetitive, non-Olympics daily lives.

"Because there are always going to be people who we can compare ourselves to that are better, faster, smarter or whatever" and that can make us feel relatively bad, she noted.

Instead, she offered, a more happiness-inducing approach might be to reflect on all the ways in which people exceed their own expectations.

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Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.