McKayla Maroney is not impressed.
Can you blame her? After a solid week of being touted as the “world’s best vaulter,” she came up short at the individual vault event, earning a silver medal after an unanticipated fall during her second vault.
“If only I’d stuck the landing,” reads the look on Maroney’s face. In other words, Maroney was most likely engaging in counterfactual thinking, otherwise known as those pesky “coulda, woulda, shouldas.”
But why would Maroney look so upset? After all, she did earn a silver medal — a fairly impressive feat, by anyone’s standards. And why does the bronze medalist, Russian gymnast Maria Paseka, look so much happier than Maroney?
In a classic study from 1995, Victoria Medvec and colleagues asked several research assistants to watch videos of the 1992 Summer Olympic Games, making sure they paid particular attention to the emotional displays of the gold, silver, and bronze medalists immediately after they earned their medals and, slightly later, as they stood on the medal podium. They wanted to determine if silver- and bronze-medalists have different kinds of counterfactual thoughts after their events, and if these thoughts influenced the ways that the athletes experienced and displayed emotions.
What they found might seem counterintuitive. Although you may logically assume that gold-medal athletes would seem the happiest and bronze-medal athletes would be slightly unhappier than their silver-medal counterparts, the study’s findings tell a different story. After carefully analyzing all of the videos, the coders determined that although gold medalists (understandably) seemed to be the happiest, silver medalists appeared significantly less happy than their bronze medalist companions.
How does this make any sense? Well, you can think about it this way. What would make you feel more upset: Missing your plane by 5 minutes, or missing it by 30? In reality, it doesn’t matter. Either way, you have missed your flight and you have to wait to catch the next one. Emotionally, however, it can make a world of difference. If you missed your plane by 30 minutes, there was no way you ever could have made it on time. But if you only missed out by a 5-minute margin, you’re stuck facing those horrible thoughts of how close you came to making it, and how you might have gotten there on time if only you had driven just a little bit faster.
That same logic applies to the medalists, especially if you think carefully about how the medaling process works. The gold-medal winner is the champion of the event, making him or her starkly different from the other two athletes on the podium. Even if the silver medalist technically “beat” the bronze medalist, neither of them actually won the event; silver medalists are stuck thinking about how close they came to winning gold and the fact that they have fallen short of that goal, despite coming so close. The other big difference, on the other hand, is the difference between “medalers” and “also-rans,” which is why commentators are so fond of saying that 4th place is the “worst possible finish.” For the bronze medalist, that’s the key distinction. Rather than focusing on whether or not bronze medalists could have earned a silver, the more obvious contrast is the fact that they narrowly escaped being an “also-ran.” As a result, bronze medalists are more likely to stand on the podium thinking about how close they came to missing a medal altogether. This explanation was confirmed when further analyses looked at the athletes’ actual comments during post-event interviews; silver medalists were more likely to focus on how things would have been better “if only” they had just done some things differently, whereas bronze medalists were more likely to mention that they were happy they were “at least” able to earn a medal. Silver medalists are less happy because they’re focusing on how they narrowly missed out on gold; bronze medalists are happier because they’re focusing on how they narrowly missed out on not winning anything at all.
More recently, a 2006 study by David Matsumoto and Bob Willingham confirmed this effect once again: Both gold and bronze medalists in the 2004 Athens Olympic Games were more likely to spontaneously display genuinely happy displays of emotions, whereas silver medalists were more likely to spontaneously display forced smiles, contempt, or disappointment.
So what exactly is the purpose of counterfactual thoughts, especially the ones where we dwell on how we failed (otherwise known as upward counterfactuals, as opposed to downward counterfactuals, which focus on how things could have been worse)? Is there anything good that can come out of these thoughts, or do they only serve to make us feel bad about ourselves?
As it turns out, recent research shows that spending time thinking about how things could have been different or why things turned out the way they did can encourage people to find a greater meaning in important life experiences. Take the fact that immediately after her disappointing second-place finish, Maroney tweeted, “Disappointed on how today turned out, but everything happens for a reason!! #noregrets” Moreover, people are more likely to engage in upward counterfactuals after failures, particularly when the outcomes were things that they actually could have controlled (as opposed to uncontrollable negative events, like natural disasters). While some people might say that it’s better for people to “look on the bright side” and try to think about how things could have been worse, engaging in upward counterfactuals can lead people to form helpful behavioral intentions related to the disappointment (like intending to practice dismounts or work harder during training), which can help them improve and earn more favorable outcomes in the future.
Medvec, Victoria Husted, Madey, Scott F., & Gilovich, Thomas (1995). When less is more: Counterfactual thinking and satisfaction among Olympic medalists. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 603-610
Matsumoto, David, & Willingham, Bob (2006). The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat: Spontaneous expressions of medal winners of the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 568-581
Smallman, Rachel, & Roese, Neal J. (2009). Counterfactual thinking facilitates behavioral intentions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 845-852
Kray, Laura J., George, Linda G., Liljenquist, Katie A., Galinsky, Adam D., Tetlock, Philip E., & Roese, Neal J. (2010). From what might have been to what must have been: Counterfactual thinking creates meaning. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106-118
Roese, Neal J., & Olson, James M. (1995). Outcome controllability and counterfactual thinking. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 620-628
AP Images via the Huffington Post; Getty Image via NY Daily News.