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September 11, 2005

Why third place feels better than second


Dr. Raj Persaud is a psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital in London and has been called "the most eminent psychiatrist of the age" by London's Spectator.

His piece in this weekend's Financial Times on how our perception of events is far more important to our sense of well–being than the events themselves is just superb.

In it, he explores "counterfactuals" — how it is that apparently successful people turn what appear to be very high quality lives into a series of near–misses that instead make them ever more miserable.

He looks at how focusing on those doing better than we are creates a tendency to find fault with our own lot, when a different perspective would offer the prospect of far greater inner peace.

Here's his essay.

    Go For Gold, Be Happy With Less

    What is it that determines your sense of well-being? Is it the events in your life or is it your perception not of what is actually happening but what might have been?

    An example of such thinking, referred to by psychologists as "counterfactuals", is what takes place when you run to catch a train.

    If you almost make it, before the train doors close abruptly in your face, you are often more upset than if you had arrived on a deserted platform half an hour late for the train.

    Recent psychological research has begun to investigate the power of counterfactual thinking and the latest findings suggest this mental habit could be the main determinant of how content you are with your life.

    Results suggest it is particularly easy for the successful and ambitious, if they are not careful, to turn their apparently superior lives into a series of "just missed trains", consequently rendering themselves more miserable than those who, on the face of it, appear to be doing less well.

    One of the most intriguing and controversial studies conducted in the science of well-being found that at the Olympic games in Barcelona 13 years ago, bronze medallists appeared happier than silver medallists.

    The finding was surprising not least because winning a silver medal is by definition a better outcome than winning a bronze - one of the few clear-cut examples in life where this is so.

    Why, then, the relatively long faces of those runners-up?

    The psychologists who conducted the study, led by Victoria Medvec of Cornell university in the US, argued that the emotional reactions of Olympic athletes are fundamentally driven by comparisons with the most easily imagined alternative outcome.

    For silver medallists that outcome was the gold; for bronze medallists that outcome was fourth place.

    Silver medallists were haunted by thoughts of: "I almost won the gold," whereas bronze medallists were thrilled by thoughts of "I won a medal!" as the main alternative outcome for them was no medal at all.

    This finding has become a textbook example of how counterfactuals can influence emotions.

    Why is it that bronze medallists don't compare themselves with gold winners and silver medallists don't look down rather than up when comparing themselves with fellow athletes?

    If a downward comparison makes us feel better in life, what drives some of us to incessantly compare ourselves with those doing better than us and, as a result, ensure we feel perpetually inadequate no matter how successful we have become?

    Medvec's team argued that often what makes one counterfactual comparison more compelling than another is determined by what they called a "close shave".

    Medvec found silver medallists were more focused than bronze medalists on thoughts of "I almost won", than thoughts of "at least I won something."

    An intriguing refinement has recently been added to such theories.

    A study conducted by Peter McGraw, with collaborating psychologists from the universities of Colorado and California at Berkeley, has been published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology entitled "Expectations and emotions of Olympic athletes".

    This points out that counterfactual thinking is really a kind of comparison - you are comparing what has happened with what could have happened, and if the alternative possibility is more attractive you end up feeling down as a result.

    Imagine argue McGraw and colleagues, that a silver medallist loses a race by the closest of margins to the gold medallist but soundly beats the bronze medallist.

    Even if they had lower expectations before the race of not placing at all, the silver medallist probably now makes upward comparisons, and feels worse.

    Close calls grab our attention in a way that totally dominates our thinking.

    They force out competing and perhaps more rational ways of looking at and evaluating our performance.

    This has big implications for solving the riddle of the elusive nature of happiness.

    Both academic psychologists and economists have noticed that substantial increases in wealth are not accompanied by similar rises in well-being, and have explained this paradox by a human tendency to compare asymmetrically - in other words, we relentlessly focus on those doing better than us rather than those doing worse.

    Study after study on wealth and income finds that it is who we compare ourselves with rather than what we objectively have that determines our overall well-being, so it is the choice of reference group that now becomes crucial in determining our happiness.

    Comparisons become particularly apposite when the personal relevance is heightened - for example, school reunions famously provoke competitive instincts because the Ferrari-driving multimillionaire at the school gates appeared to have been at a similar position to us in the starting grid of life, more so than other wealthy people we might encounter.

    This is therefore likely to provoke "what might have been" reasoning, in particular the "close shave" thinking that determines our sense of well-being.

    Other reference groups that similarly aggravate strong comparative thinking include neighbours, work colleagues and family. Daniel Nettle, a happiness psychologist at the university of Newcastle points out that a wealthy man is basically anyone who earns £100 more than his wife's sister's husband.

    A recent intriguing exception to this thinking has been found in a study conducted by Claudia Senik, an economist at the university of Paris at Sorbonne, and published in the Journal of Public Economics.

    She discovered that in unstable economies such as Russia's, individuals take the reference income of the wealthy not as a discontented comparison but as an indication of their own future.

    In other words, Senik argues that in certain economies individuals observing richer people around them take this as a sign that their own income may soon increase, which then adds to their happiness.

    The millionaire at the school gates and that silver medal will make us feel bad if our conviction is that the race is indeed over, so that no future competition can occur and therefore there can be no alternative outcome.

    If, on the other hand, we believe there is always another opportunity to compete around the corner, we can take away information from a close call that could help us prepare better and feel positive for the next race.

    The issue then is not to dwell on "what might have been" but on "what still could be".

    If it is what could be that determines our happiness, rather than what is, the good news from this happiness research is that we can seize control of our well-being by becoming more aware of what conspires in our environment to direct our attention to particular comparisons, expectations and alternative outcomes, and what moulds our thinking in helpful or unhelpful ways.

    So, as you forlornly watch that just-missed train pulling out of the station, comfort yourself with the thought that what if you had run so hard to catch the train that you indeed had made it but then promptly collapsed in the carriage from a heart attack.

    Aren't you feeling better already?


Persaud's observations are right on the money.

I have noticed over the years how, on the victory stand at the Olympics, the bronze medalist usually seems far happier than the silver winner.

Now I better understand the underpinnings of their respective emotions.

I often say to people, when they're upset about being late for something and missing their chance, that if they'd been running on time they might have gotten into an auto accident and been seriously injured or killed.

Too many stories about people caught in traffic jams who subsequently missed their flights only to read about them crashing have made me less than compelled to feel anything is all that important any more.

Persaud's new book, "The Motivated Mind: The science of fulfilment — and how to get what you want" (above) — looks interesting; it's $19.32 at amazon.

I think I'll order it.

September 11, 2005 at 10:01 AM | Permalink


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I've always argued that it's better to be surprised--at least morally--by success, even when it's well-deserved. Folks ask me how I'm doing, and I always say, "better than I deserve!"

Or maybe MADTV is right, "lowered expectations" is the key to happiness.

Posted by: Joan of Argghh! | Sep 11, 2005 7:15:38 PM

Jerry Seinfeld has a bit about this in one of his stand-ups. It is quite a few years older than this book.

Posted by: Andrew | Sep 11, 2005 5:19:57 PM

Order this too: Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton - it's an excellent study of the condition Persaud is describing. (btw, did you know he was a TV Dr - he used to be on the UK equivalent of Live with Regis & Kelly).

Posted by: Russ | Sep 11, 2005 3:00:37 PM

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