In an often-cited study about counterfactuals, Medvec, Madey, and Gilovich (1995) found that bronze medalists appeared happier than silver medalists in television coverage of the 1992 Summer Olympics. Medvec et al. argued that bronze medalists compared themselves to 4th place finishers, whereas silver medalists compared themselves to gold medalists. These counterfactuals were the most salient because they were either qualitatively different (gold vs. silver) or categorically different (medal vs. no medal) from what actually occurred. Drawing on archival data and experimental studies, we show that Olympic athletes (among others) are more likely to make counterfactual comparisons based on their prior expectations, consistent with decision affect theory. Silver medalists are more likely to be disappointed because their personal expectations are higher than those of bronze medalists. We provide a test between expectancy-based versus category-based processing and discuss circumstances that trigger each type of processing.
What are the reasons why bronze medalists appear happier than silver medalists?