Settling for silver: Why second place is worse than third

U.S. silver medallist gymnast McKayla Maroney makes a face during the podium ceremony for the artistic gymnastics women's vault finals at the 2012 Summer Olympics on Sunday in London.
U.S. silver medallist gymnast McKayla Maroney makes a face during the podium ceremony for the artistic gymnastics women's vault finals at the 2012 Summer Olympics on Sunday in London.Julie Jacobson / AP / Today

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By Diane Mapes

The look on McKayla Maroney's face seems to say it all.

The U.S. gymnast, considered a lock for a gold medal, slipped during her final vault Sunday, missing the coveted prize by a fraction of a point. While the world champion took home silver, her face seems to succinctly sum up the research of a Cornell psychology professor: coming in at number two feels a little like, well, number two.

"Bronze medalists are one step away from not getting anything," says Thomas Gilovich, who conducted a study of winning Olympic athletes in 1995. "But the silver medalist is one step away from something that's very different -- the winner, the thing that gets you on the Wheaties box."

For his study, Gilovich, who's been at Cornell for 30 years, showed clips of winning medalists from the 1992 Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona to a group of non-sporty subjects, then had them rate how happy the participants looked. One tape showed immediate reactions after the athletes had finished their performance; the other showed them on the podium receiving their medals.

"By a very substantial margin, the silver medal winners looked less happy than bronze medal winners," says Gilovich.

The psychology professor also created another tape of follow-up interviews with silver and bronze medalists and showed them to people for their interpretation.

"There was much more of an 'If only' kind of dialogue on the part of the silver medalists and a 'Well, at least I' dialogue going on with the bronze medalists," he says.

Are bronze medalists actually happier than silver medalists?

Michelle Rohl, a race walker who brought home a silver medal in 1995 and a bronze medal in 1999 from the Pan American Games, says she remembers feeling a bit disappointed with her second place honor.

"Yeah, there was a little bit of kicking myself," she says. "Although it was more later than right away. I kept thinking, 'I could have had that gold. I could have been a gold medalist.'"

Gilovich says when it comes to prizes, our minds are drawn upward when it comes to second place and drawn downward when it comes to third -- and that the results are pretty much universal.

"How the mind works is the same across cultures," he says. "The mind's going to be pulled in one direction disproportionately by virtue of the different payoffs of the gold, silver and bronze."

But as the years go by, people do become more content with their second place wins, Gilovich says.

"We have this great set of mechanisms referred to as the psychological immune system to help us deal with these problems," he says. "I think people do get more comfortable with it over time, however, just losing out on something can be hard to deal with. We have stories about the one that got away -- whether it's fishing or love. I suspect the same thing is true of Olympic medals."

Mark Grimmette, am American luger who took a silver at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics and a bronze at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, says time has helped ease his disappointment.  

"I had a very long and successful career," he says. "I can't say it's something that grinds me to this day."

The athlete -- currently working as a coach for the United States Luge Association -- says he does occasionally think of his near-miss, though.

"Athletes are analytical," he says. "When I go back and look at those performances, I cringe a little bit at those moments where it could have gone one way or the other. I'll still have that feeling for a long time. But you have to make sure you put it in proper perspective in life."

Rohl, currently the track and field assistant coach at Mansfield University in Mansfield, Penn., may have done just that.

"I wish I would have gotten a gold medal at the Pan Am Games but it's not that important to me anymore," she says. "I actually don't even know where my silver medal is. I'm sure it must be somewhere."