Sunday, August 5, 2012

So right now Del Potro is way happier than Federer?

And Victoria Azarenka may be in a more celebratory mood than Maria Sharapova? That's what some research based on photographic evidence from the 90s would have us believe. That winning a bronze medal at the Olympics makes you happier than gaining silver. That landing in third place is a far more thrilling experience than coming second. Sounds counterintuitive doesn't it?

But back in 1992, a trio of psychological researchers named Victoria Medvec, Scott Madey and Thomas Gilovich, studied photographs of the faces of medal winners at that year's Barcelona Olympics. They examined the faces at two points: At the conclusion of their events, and again as they stood on the podium to receive their Olympic medals.

And they found that bronze medalists had happier faces than athletes who had won silver. Gold medal winners were understandably the happiest of the lot. (And was there a better example of beaming this year than Serena mimicking her friend in the players box and doing the Crip Dance? LOL!). 

But why would bronze medalists seem to be more joyous than the individuals who won silver? Why would coming in third be more thrilling than coming second?

The why is easy enough to explain. The researchers believe that medalists engage in 'counterfactual thinking'. Their emotional responses to the outcome of their efforts are overly influenced by thoughts of 'what might have been'. For silver medalists, the counterfactual thought may be that they could or should have won the gold. For bronze medalists, the counterfactual thought is that they could have finished without a medal. As a result, bronze medalists end up feeling happier. Perhaps relief translates into joy.

In other words, silver medalists compare themselves to the individuals who won gold and end up feeling like they didn't measure up. Bronze medalists on the other hand, compare themselves to the fourth place winner, or to players who did not get a medal at all. They end up utterly thrilled to have won a medal at all. 

My next question was whether this finding from the 90s still holds today. To answer this question I decided to conduct my own non-empirical twist on this study. Instead of looking at photographs of the facial expressions of tennis medalists, I decided to examine their post-match interviews. If the researchers are correct, the interviews of the third place holders should all reflect language of joy and happiness, while second place winners would talk of feelings of disappointment. In other words, I would expect bronze medal holders to be generally more positive in their language, and silver medalists to be more negative in tone. That was my working hypothesis.

So I decided to take a look at some of the post-event interviews posted at the International Tennis Federation site, to see if this theory still holds up. I decided to start with the youngest player to win an Olympics silver medal – Britain's Laura Robson. My thinking was that this 18-year-old hasn't yet been so media-managed that her words will end up being a bunch of fluff signifying nothing. I counted on the teenager to tell the truth of her feelings. And she did:

Laura Robson (GBR)
On winning the mixed doubles silver medal in her hometown...
ROBSON: I don't really know at the moment because we were so close to the gold medal. So for the moment I'm just a bit disappointed, but it's been a really, really good week. Just to be playing in the Olympics, I was really happy with that. At the start of last week, I just thought I was playing doubles. So to be a silver medalist is pretty cool. I'm looking forward to seeing my medal.

Compare this with Juan Del Potro who took the bronze in singles for Argentina:

Juan Martin del Potro (ARG)
On winning a bronze medal after the disappointment of losing in the semifinals...
DEL POTRO: I think I'm the most happy of the world at this moment. After a really sad day two days ago, it's not easy to recovery and to play these kind of matches, but I had energy into my body, into my heart, and that's help me to play this big challenge for me.

(Part 1 of 2)


1 comment:

brian said...

the silver medalist loses his /her match the bronze wins his/hers.

Not all silver medalists are unhappy...eg Dawn Harper:
http://www.zimbio.com/photos/Dawn+Harper/Olympics+Day+12+Athletics/eOOT-ujghZg

Moral...dont pay too much attention to the scientists...