Competition and counterfactuals

The title of a column in today’s Washington Post caught my attention: Happiness on the Medal Stand? It’s as Simple as 1-3-2. Shankar Vedantam cites a 1995 study (PDF) that examined reactions of Olympic medalists just after they’d won a silver or bronze medal, and also at the medal ceremonies.

Volunteers observing the reactions concluded that the bronze medalists looked “significantly happier” than the silver medalists.

Silver medalists…seem to perform what psychologists call an upward counterfactual — they compare themselves against someone better offthan them. Bronze medalists seem to perform downward counterfactuals– they tend to compare themselves with people who did worse.

Comparing upward can spur you on to greater effort, of course. It can also leave you dissatisfied, like Abel Kiviat, the odds-on favorite who finished second in the 1,500 meter race during the 1912 games. At the age of 90, he said he would wake up in the middle of the night, asking how he could have lost.

Thomas Gilovich, one of the authors of the 1995 paper, quotes a colleague: “The key to understanding happiness is not to think about it as a trait but as a talent. Happy people have a talent — they are able to argue life is a glass half full. They are able to say, ‘I have gone over this enough, now let me be happy I got a silver medal.'”

Olympic coverage where you live may differ, but it seems to me that U.S. television mentions bronze medalists mainly in two circumstances:

  • An American sweep of all three medals
  • The only American medalist wins bronze

In the world of work, there’s almost mystical belief in the power of competition within the organization, (as opposed to facing business competitors) , even to exercises in training sessions. Those who thrive on competition think that’s great. You may experience far different feelings if you’re more prone to collaboration, teamwork, or simply prefer not to measure your value against the performance of others.

Just as in sports, recognition and external rewards tend to flow to a handful of top performers. For balance, an individual needs to reward himself as well.

2 thoughts on “Competition and counterfactuals

  1. Hi Dave
    I come from Ireland and we would be happy with just one medal of any colour. We celebrate our athletes personal bests and national records even if they’re well behind the winners. On a wider note, I wonder about distance races (on the athletics of bike track) where much team effort goes into ensuring at least one member of a given nationality makes it to the podium. Only the podium finisher gets a medal while the others are unsung heroes and are unlikely to have their name remembered. Food for thought!

  2. I think the secret to motivation is… it’s what motivates the performer, not the manager. I remember hearing a lot of claptrap about how money isn’t a motivator. Usually that comes from people who have more of it than you do.

    Money certainly isn’t the only motivator, but it’s mighty fungible, which means you can get your own damned motivator with it.

    More to the point: a misplaced emphasis on competition, challenge, stretch goals — especially when people have no genuine voice in helping to set them — can work against fully engaging people for whom outperforming others is not that big a deal.

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