ScientIST: When Less is More

by Jason G., The Thoughtful Animal/Special to LAist

In 1892, psychologist William James wrote:

So we have the paradox of a man shamed to death because he is only the second pugilist or the second oarsman in the world. That he is able to beat the whole population of the globe minus one is nothing; he has “pitted” himself to beat that one; and as long as he doesn't do that nothing else counts.

James’s observation echoes a sentiment that is well known in psychology: a person’s achievements matter less than how that person subjectively perceives those achievements. For example, you might be thrilled over a 5% raise at work until you learn that your colleague down the hall earned a 10% raise. But is there ever a case when the individual with the 5% raise (let’s call him Arthur) is happier with his or her outcome than the person with the 10% raise (let’s call her Emily)? Perhaps if the Arthur only expected a 3% raise, but Emily expected a 15% raise, then indeed Arthur would be more satisfied with his outcome, despite it being objectively lower than Emily’s outcome.

In the picture above are the gold, silver, and bronze medalists at the medal ceremony for women’s moguls at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics. In the center, gold medalist Hannah Kearney of the USA; on the right, silver medalist Jennifer Heil of Canada; on the left, bronze medalist Shannon Bahrke, also of the USA.

In athletic competitions there are clear winners and losers. In the Olympics, the gold medalist won the competition; the silver medalist has a slightly lower achievement, and the bronze medalist a lower achievement still. One might expect that their happiness with their performance would mirror this order, with the gold medalist being happiest, followed by the silver medalists, and then the bronze. You might expect that Jennifer Heil, having won the silver medal, would be happier than Shannon Bahrke, so why does it appear as if Bahrke is so much more pleased with her bronze medal?

Psychologists Victoria Medvec and Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University, and Scott Madey of the University of Toledo think that this phenomenon can be explained by counterfactual thinking. This means that people compare their objective achievements to what “might have been.”

The most obvious counterfactual thought for the silver medalist might be to focus on almost winning gold. She would focus on the difference between coming in first place, and any other outcome. The bronze medalist, however, might focus their counterfactual thoughts downward towards fourth place. She would focus on almost not winning a medal at all. The categorical difference, between being a medalist and not winning a medal, does not exist for the comparison between first and second place.

It is because of this incongruous comparison that the bronze medalist, who is objectively worse off, would be more pleased with herself, and happier with her achievement, than the silver medalist.

To scientifically investigate this question, the researchers took video footage of the 1992 summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. Specifically, they recorded the medal ceremonies and showed them to undergraduate students, as well as footage from the athletic competitions immediately following announcements of the winners. They asked them to rate the happiness displayed by each of the medalists on a 10-point scale, with 1 being “agony” and 10 being “ecstasy.”

On average, the silver medalists scored a 4.8, and the bronze medalists scored a 7.1 immediately following the announcement. Later in the day, at the medal ceremony, the silver medalists scored a 4.3 on the happiness scale, while the bronze medalists scored 5.7. Statistical analyses proved that both immediately after winning, as well as later at the medal ceremony, bronze medalists were visibly happier than the silver medalists.

There may, indeed, be times when less really is more.


Medvec, V.H., Madey, S.F., and Gilovich, T. (1995). When less is more: Counterfactual thinking and satisfaction among Olympic medalists. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(4), 603-610.