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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

Sporn again: A brief look at the evolution of ‘metrosexuality’

Back in 1994, the journalist Mark Simpson coined the term ‘metrosexual’ in an article in the British newspaper The Independent. The Wikipedia entry on metrosexuality notes:

“Metrosexual is a neologism, derived from metropolitan and heterosexual, coined in 1994 describing a man (especially one living in an urban, post-industrial, capitalist culture) who is especially meticulous about his grooming and appearance, typically spending a significant amount of time and money on shopping as part of this. The term is popularly thought to contrast heterosexuals who adopt fashions and lifestyles stereotypically associated with homosexuals, although, by definition given by [Mark Simpson], a metrosexual ‘might be officially gay, straight or bisexual’”

To be honest, I had never come across the term metrosexual until 2005 (although I was well aware of the male grooming, vain, image conscious, and product-consuming males typified by ex-footballer David Beckham). I was doing some consultancy with an online poker firm about different types of poker player and the press campaign that followed the publication of my report was headlined ‘betrosexuals’ (because it highlighted gender swapping by online poker players – an area that I then went on to research more academically – see ‘Further reading’ below). It was only at this point I was told that ‘betrosexual’ was a play on the word ‘metrosexual’.

The reason I mention all of this is because earlier today I did a BBC radio interview about the rise of the ‘spornosexual’ (yet another term I had never heard of until I was asked to appear on the programme). ‘Spornosexual’ is another term coined by Mark Simpson (as noted in the Wikipedia entry):

“A neologism combining sports, porn, and metrosexual, and used to describe an aesthetic adopted by many men who consume both sports and pornography. The spornosexual style emphasises heavy, lean musculature, and certain kinds of tattooing. The term entered the popular lexicon through a 2014 Daily Telegraph article by Mark Simpson…In 2006, Mark Simpson already wrote about ‘sporno’ for Out Magazine: ‘whole new generation of young bucks, from twinky soccer players like Manchester United’s Alan Smith and Cristiano Ronaldo to rougher prospects like Chelsea’s Joe Cole and AC Milan’s Kaká, keen to emulate their success, are actively pursuing sex-object status in a postmetrosexual, increasingly pornolized world”.

In short (and according to an article in the Washington Post), spornosexuals are simply the “hyper-sexualized, body-obsessed cultural offspring of the metrosexual”.To be honest, reading this definition makes me think that ‘spornosexuals’ have been around for a few decades now as these types of men were well described at length by Bret Easton Ellis in his 1991 novel American Psycho (minus the tattooing). Simpson claimed in his recent article in the Daily Telegraph that metrosexuality had evolved and that the “new wave” had put the ‘sexual’ into ‘metrosexuality’, had become “totally tarty”, and that such men should be called ‘spornosexuals’. More specifically, Simpson claimed:

“With their painstakingly pumped and chiselled bodies, muscle-enhancing tattoos, piercings, adorable beards and plunging necklines it’s eye-catchingly clear that second-generation metrosexuality is less about clothes than it was for the first. Eagerly self-objectifying, second generation metrosexuality is totally tarty. Their own bodies (more than clobber and product) have become the ultimate accessories, fashioning them at the gym into a hot commodity – one that they share and compare in an online marketplace. This new wave puts the ‘sexual’ into metrosexuality. In fact, a new term is needed to describe them, these pumped-up offspring of those Ronaldo and Beckham lunch-box ads, where sport got into bed with porn while Mr Armani took pictures. Let’s call them “spornosexuals”…Glossy magazines cultivated early metrosexuality. Celebrity culture then sent it into orbit. But for today’s generation, social media, selfies and porn are the major vectors of the male desire to be desired. They want to be wanted for their bodies, not their wardrobe. And certainly not their minds”

I tracked down Simpson’s 2006 article on ‘sporno’ published in Out magazine in which he claimed sport was the “new gay porn” because (for instance) footballers like David Beckham and Freddie Ljungberg had posed for gay magazines. He also made reference to metrosexual Gavin Henson (“rugby’s answer to David Beckham”) who loves shaving his legs and wears fake tan on the pitch. Simpson claimed:

“Sporno-sport that acknowledges and exploits the voyeuristic, usually homoerotic, thrill that fit male bodies throwing themselves against other fit male bodies can generate is already the acceptable, ruddy-cheeked outdoor-broadcasting face of porn. At least in soccer- and rugby-playing pagan Europe and Australia but it can be only a matter of time before it conquers the God-fearing, football-playing United States too…Being equal opportunity flirts, today’s sporno stars want to turn everyone on. Partly because sportsmen, like porn stars, are by definition show-offs, but more particularly because it means more money, more power, more endorsements, more kudos. It acknowledges the consumerist, showbiz direction that sport is moving in and engorges and inflates their career portfolio to gargantuan proportions”.

Simpson asserted that Beckham was a household name in America because he was a sporno star (rather than sports star) due to his high profile body adorning adverts and fetishizing himself. Beckham’s masculinity had become commodified, and in our highly consumerist culture “envy and desire are almost indistinguishable”. As a father of two sons and a daughter, I do worry how the perfect body images they see in the print and broadcast media may affect their own self-esteem. Although I had often thought about the pursuit of bodily perfection in terms of my daughter’s adolescent development, it’s not something I had thought about in relation to my sons. As a psychologist that specializes in addictive and obsessive behaviour, I am only too aware of the rise in male eating disorders, but the rise of the metrosexual is likely to be a contributory factor. In the Washington Post article on spornosexuality, the journalist Abby Phillip interviewed the branding expert (and author of the 2006 book The Future of Men) Marian Salzman. Salzman claimed that metrosexuality had indeed involved but not in the way that Simpson hoped:

“The word metrosexual has outgrown Simpson’s narcissistic depiction and now transcends narrow stereotypes to describe a whole range of traits. And the metrosexuals themselves are now men who don’t unquestioningly assume that there’s just one way of being a man”.

Based on what I have read so far, I don’t think that the term ‘spornosexuality’ will catch the public’s imagination in the same way as metrosexuality (in fact, I’m yet to be convinced that spornosexuality is significantly different from metrosexuality). That doesn’t mean the stereotypes attributed to such a term don’t exist. However, the jury is out on if there will be any long-lasting psychological consequences of identifying oneself as a spornosexual.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Daily Mirror (2005). Betrosexuals. August 12. Located at: http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/betrosexuals-553460

Griffiths, M.D., Parke, J., Wood, R.T.A. & Rigbye, J. (2010). Online poker gambling in university students: Further findings from an online survey. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 82-89.

Phillip. A. (2014). Step aside, metrosexuals, and make way for…the spornosexual man? Washington Post, June 10. Located at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/style-blog/wp/2014/06/10/step-aside-metrosexuals-and-make-way-for-the-spornosexual-man/

Salzman, M. (2006). The Future of Men: The Rise of the Übersexual and What He Means for Marketing Today. London: Palgrave.

Simpson, M. (2006). Sporno. Out, June 19. Located at: http://www.out.com/entertainment/2006/06/19/sporno?page=0,0

Simpson, M. (2014). The metrosexual is dead. Long live the ‘spornosexual’. Daily Telegraph, June 10. Located at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/fashion-and-style/10881682/The-metrosexual-is-dead.-Long-live-the-spornosexual.html

Wikipedia (2014). Metrosexual. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metrosexual

Wikipedia (2014). Spornosexual. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spornosexual

Wood, R.T.A., Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2007). The acquisition, development, and maintenance of online poker playing in a student sample. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 354-361.