If you, like me, believe that economics explains much more than we expect, please read onward.
Our topic is the emotions that Olympic medal winners display.
Happy Bronze Medal Winners
Just when they win or lose, Olympic medal winners show real emotion. Then soon after, they can become less spontaneous. In a “genuine” moment, we can compare the emotions displayed by the bronze and silver medal winners.
Please look at the expressions (below) of the Olympic medal winners for the 200-meter individual medley at Beijing in 2008. Michael Phelps (center) won the gold. Doesn’t the silver medalist on the left seem rather glum?
Our Bottom Line: Economic Explanations of Emotions
Using a behavioral economist’s lens, we could say that silver and bronze medalists feel differently because of their reference points. Reference points come in handy as a tool for assessing an accomplishment. At work we will be unhappy with a 5% raise when an associate gets 7%. If our stock portfolio plunges, we don’t feel so bad if the S&P declined even more.
Similarly, the silver medalist focuses on what could have been by thinking, “if only…” and “why didn’t I just…” By contrast, bronze winners tend to take pride in having won a medal and topping so many other competitors. The silver medalist focuses “upward” on the gold winner as his or her reference point while the bronze thinks “downward” about all those who won nothing.
Next, looking at the response after that spontaneous moment, researchers saw a difference in “emotional regulation.” Athletes from more affluent countries tend to hide less of their feelings. So too did individuals living in urban, more densely populated areas. Meanwhile, those living in a more collective environment that encourages conformity tend to mask how they feel.
My sources and more: This Washington Post Wonkblog column on the emotional response of bronze medal winners took me to this academic study and this Hidden Brain podcast. Do note that parts of the sections on happy bronze winners were previously published in a 2014 econlife post.