illustration of a medal podium with a star above third place
Friday, July 16, 2021
Tom Snee

At the Olympics, bronze medals are given to people who finish in third place, and the definition of a third-place finisher is that they lost to the person who finished second. It’s how competition works: The second-place finisher beats the third-place finisher.

But a new study from the University of Iowa analyzed photos of Olympic medal ceremonies and found bronze medalists tend to appear happier than the silver medalists who beat them.

How is it that a person who was beaten is happier with their performance than the person they lost to? Andrea Luangrath, assistant professor of marketing in the Tippie College of Business and a member of the research team, says two theories have developed to explain why and her study is consistent with both explanations.

The researchers gathered photos of 413 athletes at medal ceremonies from 142 track and field events at Olympic games between 2000 and 2016. They analyzed the photos using software that can read a person’s facial expression by the shapes and positions of their mouths, eyes, eyebrows, noses, and other parts of the face. Not surprisingly, the analysis found that gold medalists are far more likely to smile than the other two medalists, and people who finished better than expected were also more likely to smile, regardless of their medal.

But it also found that bronze medalists are more likely to be smiling during the medal ceremony than are silver medalists, who are less likely to smile themselves, or to have an insincere “smile for the camera” smile, if they performed worse than expected.

Luangrath says one theory for this behavior suggests that silver medalists compare their finish to the gold medalists and are disappointed to be oh-so-close, but yet so far. Bronze medalists, on the other hand, compare their result to the fourth-place finisher and are just glad to be on the podium.

The other theory is that silver medalists are disappointed in their result because they felt they should have performed better.

Luangrath says her study supports both theories, so the response depends on the circumstance of each individual on the medal stand. McKayla Maroney’s famous “not impressed” grimace after finishing in second place when she made a mistake on the women’s vault at the 2012 games is an iconic example of this phenomenon.

“It is sometimes difficult to control our facial expressions, providing a lens into what people think and feel,” says Luangrath.

Her study, “Counterfactual thinking and Facial Expressions among Olympic Medalists,” was co-authored by Bill Hedgcock of the University of Minnesota and former University of Iowa undergraduate student Raelyn Webster. It was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

 

CONTACT: Tom Snee, media relations specialist, Tippie College of Business. Tom-snee@uiowa.edu; 319-384-0010 (o); 319-541-8434 (c)