We already know that psychology plays an outsized role in sports, but it also impacts how athletes and fans feel about the results in surprising ways. Since the beginning of Sochi, the New York Times has been engaged in a sort of sports schadenfreude, documenting the shortcomings of non-medalists in the Olympics who fell a mark or millisecond short of immortality and finished in fourth place.
But yesterday's heartbreaking loss by the American men's hockey team to Canada in the semifinals may give us insight into another dimension of sports psychology. Some evidence suggests that if the men go on to win today and secure the bronze medal, both athletes and spectators alike might feel better about the third place finish than they would about a silver medal finish.
As Cass Sunstein wrote earlier this month, the psychology behind it has to do with counterfactuals. The what-ifs are easier to stomach if the choices are between near-glory and no achievement at all. A study conducted by Victoria Medvec and two other researchers explained:
Medvec and her colleagues also studied interviews of silver and bronze medal winners after their events. They asked a group of observers to rate the athletes’ comments, in those interviews, on a 10-point scale, which was meant to capture gratification or instead disappointment, with “1” meaning “at least I got a medal” and “10” meaning “I almost did better.”
Here too the results were clear. The silver medalists were at an average 5.7 on the 10-point scale, meaning that they were thinking a fair bit about how they could have gotten the gold. By contrast, the bronze medalists were at just 2.37, meaning that they were basking in their own achievement, and weren't making comparisons with those who did better.
An obvious companion to this would be the U.S. women's hockey team, which suffered a devastating loss of its own earlier this week. Despite earning the silver medal, the story of American women's hockey in Sochi will not be about second place, but about how agonizingly close they were to first. Edward McClelland added an irresistible touch to this theory by compiling photographs of the "saddest-looking second-place finishers in Olympic history."