Silver cross? The strange case of counterfactual thinking among Olympic athletes

As a psychologist, I’m very interested in how people decide what the reasons for a behaviour or action are. For instance, if Brazil wins the gold medal in football at the Olympics there might be a whole range of reasons that we attribute this success to (e.g., the skill of the team, the manager’s team selection, the influence of home crowd support, etc.). If they get knocked out early in the competition, we might attribute the failure to a related but slightly different set of reasons (e.g., the manager didn’t pick the best players, the referee was biased in his decision-making, etc.).

However, there is a lot of psychological research showing that – on occasions – our attributions about the outcome of sporting events (both failures and successes) can be relatively unrealistic. Psychologists explain reasoning in these cases as due to counterfactual thinking (CFT) because it runs counter to the facts of the situation. There are always things that have happened to us in our lives where we dwell on something that we have done and make attributions about the causes of those events, even though we can no longer do anything about it.

Olympians who perform below their best can waste lots of time ‘torturing’ themselves about their performance (e.g., sprinters may re-run races in their head and imagine what they could have done differently). This is known as upward CFT. The opposite phenomenon (i.e., downward CFT) is when a person spends loads of time thinking about how things could have been a lot worse.

Psychological research has demonstrated that CFT is more likely to occur when an outcome is upsetting, negative, and/or unexpected. A really good example of this was in the 1998 football World Cup when England’s David Beckham was sent off for kicking an opposition player during the quarter-final against Argentina. There is no way of knowing whether England would have won the game if Beckham hadn’t been sent off. However, immediately after England’s loss, there was an almost universal attribution by the British media and the British general public that the only reason we didn’t reach the semi-final was the sending off of David Beckham.

This was a classic example of downward CFT at a national level. If England had been losing at the time of Beckham’s red card, it is debatable whether such attention would have been given. Similar types of national downward CFT were displayed when Frank Lampard’s goal against Germany in the 2010 football World Cup was not given. Had the goal been given by the referee, England would have levelled the game at 2-2 and perhaps the outcome would have been very different (even though most neutral observers claim Germany’s 4-1 win was fully deserved).

My favourite study in the area of CFT was actually carried out on Olympians by American psychologists Victoria Medvec, Scott Madley and Thomas Gilovich. They published a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology entitled When Less Is More: Counterfactual Thinking and Satisfaction Among Olympic Medalists’. They were interested in whether the effects of different counterfactual comparisons were strong enough to cause people who are objectively worse off to sometimes feel better than those in a superior state. They came up with an ingenious way to look at this by studying the medals won during athletic competition.

“We chose this domain of investigation because in athletic competition outcomes are typically defined with unusual precision. Someone finishes first, second, or third, for example, thereby earning a gold, silver, or bronze medal. With all else equal, one would expect the athletes’ levels of satisfaction to mirror this objective order. We suspected, however, that all else is not equal – that the nature of athletes’ counterfactual thoughts might cause their levels of satisfaction to depart from this simple, linear order”

And that’s exactly what they found because they found that bronze medalists tend to be happier than silver medalists – and they explained this by comparison between upward and downward CFT. They expected those who won silver medals to be more focused on why they failed to win a gold medal (upward CFT). For bronze medalists, they expected them to be more focused on the fact that they finished with a medal rather than nothing at all (downward CFT). Medvec and colleagues put it a lot more eloquently than I could:

“For the silver medalist, this exalted status was only one step away. To be sure, the silver medalist also finished only one step from winning a bronze, but such a downward social comparison does not involve much of a change in status (i.e., neither the bronze nor silver medalist won the event, but both won medals), and thus does not constitute as much of a counterfactual temptation. In contrast, bronze medalists are likely to focus their counterfactual thoughts downward. Like the qualitative jump between silver and gold, there is a categorical difference between finishing third and finishing fourth. Third place merits a medal whereas the fourth-place finisher is just one of the field. This type of categorical difference does not exist in the upward comparison between second and third place”.

Basically, the authors attributed their findings to the fact that the most compelling counterfactual alternative for the silver medalist is winning the gold, whereas for the bronze medalist it is finishing without a medal. Therefore, bronze medalists are happier than silver medalists with the outcome – even though the silver medalists did objectively better in the event. The authors also noted that CFT might be very long lasting for athletes. They briefly recalled the case of the 1500m middle distance runner Abel Kiviat, who won a silver medal at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. Kiviat had all but won the race until the British athlete Arnold Jackson “came from nowhere” and won the race by one-tenth of a second. In a 1995 interview to the Los Angeles Times, the then 91-year old Kiviat said: “I wake up sometimes and say, ‘What the heck happened to me?’ It’s like a nightmare”.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Baron, R. A. (2000). Counterfactual thinking and venture formation: The potential effects of thinking about “what might have been”. Journal of business venturing, 15(1), 79-91

Byrne, R. M., & McEleney, A. (2000). Counterfactual thinking about actions and failures to act. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 26(5), 1318-1331.

Epstude, K., & Roese, N. J. (2008). The functional theory of counterfactual thinking. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 12(2), 168-192

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

Roese, N. J. (1997). Counterfactual thinking. Psychological bulletin, 121(1), 133-148.

Roese, N. J., & Olson, J. M. (2014). What might have been: The social psychology of counterfactual thinking. London: Psychology Press

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on August 11, 2016, in Case Studies, Fame, Games, Popular Culture, Psychology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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