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Why winning a silver Olympic medal can feel worse than getting bronze

Wondering why silver Olympic medal winners seem so down?

Team USA is bringing home plenty of hardware from the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, but some of our best hopes for gold — the women's gymnastics and softball teams, for example — are coming up silver.

How does it feel to win silver? The look on McKayla Maroney's face seemed to say it all.

The U.S. gymnast, considered a lock for a gold medal in London in 2012, slipped during her final vault, missing the coveted prize by a fraction of a point. While the world champion took home silver, her face seemed to succinctly sum up the research of a Cornell psychology professor: coming in at number two feels a little like, well, number two.

McKayla Maroney meme
The famous silver medal face of McKayla Maroney.Julie Jacobson / AP

"Bronze medalists are one step away from not getting anything," Thomas Gilovich, who conducted a study of winning Olympic athletes in 1995, told TODAY. "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 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," Gilovich said.

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.

Or as Jerry Seinfeld put it, "you win the bronze - you think, 'Well, at least I got something.' But when you win that silver it's like, 'Congratulations, you almost won. Of all the losers you came in first of that group. You're the number one loser. No one lost ahead of you!'"

Are bronze medalists actually happier than silver medalists?

Recent attempts to replicate Gilovich's study have had mixed results. Silver medalists and bronze medalists seemed equal in emotion to outside observers, but silver medalists did engage in more "if only" type of thinking, or what psychologists call counterfactual thinking.

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.'"

Ian MacNicol Archive
Katherine Granger of Great Britain was a disappointed recipient of a silver medal in 2008 in Beijing.Ian MacNicol / Getty Images

Gilovich said 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."

Victoria Medvec, a researcher who explored the issue, told TODAY that as time passes silver medalists may react more graciously, but the disappointment of losing gold never goes away. She and her colleagues interviewed a silver medalist who was still thinking about the what ifs of his Olympic experience decades later.

"He is 91 years old; he still remembers vividly his thoughts [about losing gold]," said Medvec, of Northwestern University. "For a silver medalist it is very easy for them to think 'if only I had gone faster ... I would be the gold medalist.' "

But for most athletes, as the years go by, people do become more content with their second place wins, Gilovich said.

"We have this great set of mechanisms referred to as the psychological immune system to help us deal with these problems," he said. "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."

Dejected members of the USA team wear t
Dejected members of the USA team wear their silver medals following their loss against Canada during the Games in Vancouver, Canada on February 25, 2010. Luis Acosta / AFP via Getty Images

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

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

The athlete said he does occasionally think of his near-miss, though.

"Athletes are analytical," he said. "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 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 said. "I actually don't even know where my silver medal is. I'm sure it must be somewhere."

A version of this story originally appeared in 2012. It has been updated.