The ‘photo-finish effect’: when third place winners are happier than second

Laura Kudrna, a London School of Economics scholarship PhD candidate, researches the effects of achievement on happiness, particularly focusing on examples of when greater success – be it financial, academic, romantic, or athletic – do not translate into greater wellbeing for individuals or societies.

The study, carried out at the ESRC-funded Centre for Economic Performance, recently attracted national headlines. Here Laura gives us a more detailed overview.

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Many of us have goals to be ‘better’ in some way. But does being better mean that we will be happier?

One of the most prominent examples of when greater success does not necessarily bring greater happiness is in the Olympics.

The silver medal awarded for the 800m run during the 1904 Summer Olympics

The silver medal awarded for the 800m run during the 1904 Summer Olympics

Prior research has shown that silver medallists are, on average, less happy than bronze medallists – explained by ‘what could have happened instead’. Silver medallists are gutted thinking about how they’ve missed out on gold, whilst bronze are happy to be on the podium, thinking about how they could’ve finished fourth.

To further investigate when coming third is better for happiness than coming second, I recently conducted research with George Kavetsos, Chloe Foy, and Paul Dolan.

After witnessing the palpable devastation on the faces of rowers Zac Purchase and Mark Hunter when they narrowly missed out on gold at London 2012, we correctly predicted the margins of securing a medal would matter to happiness.

David Florence and Richard Hounslow, photo by David Merrett

David Florence and Richard Hounslow (photo by David Merrett)

Our results showed that when there was a close call (what we call a ‘photo-finish’) between gold and silver medallists, then silver were perceived as less happy than bronze medallists. We saw an example of this with canoers David Florence and Richard Hounslow in this year’s Rio 2016 Games.

On the other hand, when there was a closer call between silver and bronze than between silver and gold medallists, silver were happier than bronze medallists.
This meant gold were happier than silver medallists, and silver happier than bronze medallists – what you might expect.
Such an event happened in Rio, with the United States women’s gymnastics team’s large margin of victory in securing gold.
So, gold and bronze medallists are, on average, perceived happier the better that they perform; whereas silver medallists are perceived as less happy the better they perform.

700 people, watching over 100 podium clips – collecting the research

About 700 people came to the London School of Economics’ Behavioural Research Lab to rate how happy Team GB athletes appeared on the podium at London 2012. Typically, how happy people say others look correlates pretty well with others’ feelings, although the association is not perfect.

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There were over 100 videos – edited to focus on only the athletes’ emotional expressions, concealing the podium, and removing text at the bottom of the screen.
Any events where medals were not awarded simultaneously, such as tennis or judo, were excluded as athletes may have already had some idea of their medal during their final competition. We also checked whether the happiness of the raters influenced how happy they perceived the athletes to be, finding the effect to be negligible, and made sure that the raters’ prior knowledge of sports and London 2012, in particular, did not influence results.

Can you really measure ‘happiness’?

Yes. Although happiness is a complex construct, and can be objective, it can be measured. One method is qualitatively, by asking people to describe what happiness is to them and what makes them happy.

But most of these studies suffer from the ‘focusing effect’ – eg when asked about whether something like income makes you happy you overestimate the effect on happiness simply by thinking about it.

The other method is quantitatively, asking questions such as, “How happy do you feel right now?” or “How meaningful does what you are doing feel?” and then using a scale (eg 0-10) to pinpoint this. It does lose some of the nuance of what happiness is all about, however it sidesteps the focusing effect and allows us to make inferences about large groups. This is important for policy decisions affecting populations.

It is also possible to more objectively measure people’s facial expressions to infer their happiness, although how happy people say they are does not always correspond with how happy their faces reveal that they feel.

So when is it better to come in third rather than second place?

The take-away message from our research is: if you are competing, and you know you’re finishing second, make sure you finish closer to third than first. This changes the people you compare yourself to. Instead of thinking about the first place you narrowly missed out on, you’re more likely to relate to the person in third.

Of course, however, our research may not apply in contexts outside of the Olympics. It may be that there are some characteristics of athletes who finish second or third that affect how happy they are, in addition to how well they performed, and it may be important for athletes to feel they’ve tried their best.

The London 2012 Beach Volleyball medallists during the US National Anthem. Photo by Daniel Coomber.

The London 2012 beach volleyball medallists during the US National Anthem (photo by Daniel Coomber)

Other research has shown that bronze Olympian medallists, who were not expected to medal, appeared happier to observers than silver medallists expected to win gold.

At Rio, swimmer Fu Yuanhui’s surprise at winning a bronze medal could mean she was happier than the silver medallist, especially after only realising her podium place when a reporter told her after her race.

We also don’t know whether or not the happiness associated with the photo-finish effect is sustained over time, although we are currently aiming to contact athletes to inform longitudinal results.

The final countdown

The goals people set for themselves and the achievements they make – in many domains – may not always bring them more happiness.

Goals and achievements, deep down, may be motivated by a desire to be happier but they don’t always work. We need to discover more, and better, ways to connect our desires for greater success with our desires for greater wellbeing.


You can follow @laura_kudrna and @CEP_LSE on Twitter

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