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IOWA CITY — Winning is nice. But so is not losing.
Just check the faces of those Olympians who earn coveted spots on the podiums you’ll start seeing in the coming days as the postponed “Tokyo 2020” games get underway.
“What we see is the medalist who is the most happy is the gold medalist — because they just won the event,” said Andrea Luangrath, a University of Iowa assistant marketing professor who collaborated with one of her former UI undergraduate students, Raelyn Webster, and with Bill Hedgcock, of the University of Minnesota, on Olympics-related research into counterfactual — or “what if?” — thinking.
“But then the next medalist that’s expressing the most happiness is the bronze medalist,” Luangrath told The Gazette. “Those are the ones who tend to be smiling much more. And then silver medalists are the least happy of the three.”
The research team arrived at those findings — published by the American Psychological Association — using software to analyze faces in photos depicting 413 athletes at medal ceremonies from 142 Olympic track and field events between 2000 and 2016.
Luangrath and her colleagues established two prevailing “counterfactual thinking” theories about why those who earned third place appeared happier than those who did better and placed second. And they both involve a what-could-have-been mindset.
Integral to the first explanation is categorical proximity. While silver medalists are — in some cases — just seconds or milliseconds from winning a gold medal, bronze medalists often find themselves nearer not placing at all than to being at the top of the podium.
“This is just essentially imagining different realities of things that didn't occur — but really could have,” Luangrath said. “So that silver medalist is essentially thinking in their mind, ‘Well, I almost won gold.’ So they’re forming this upward comparison, and they're looking at that gold place finisher and they're saying, ‘I was close. If only I'd done X, Y or Z, I would be in that position.’
“But the bronze medalist is actually forming a downward comparison,” she said. “So that bronze medalist is thinking, ‘I’m just happy to be on the medal stand at all. I’m really happy I’m not the fourth place finisher.’”
The second explanation for the happier third-placers involves “expectation-based counterfactuals,” according to the UI-led research. Using Sports Illustrated predictions, among other things, the research team determined that silver medalists more often had higher expectations than those in third, skewing their placement perceptions.
“That silver medalist, maybe they just had higher expectations for performance — maybe that silver medalist just thought they were going to perform better than the one finishing in the bronze place,” Luangrath said. “Those kind of higher expectations and falling short of those expectations is really what's driving these differences in how these medalists appear.”
As a UI student, Webster kick-started the inquiry that involved amassing photos from the Olympic Multimedia Library and Getty Images for the five summer games between 2000 in Sydney, Australia, and 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
“As many as she could lay her hands on to be able to gather a really large data set for us,” Luangrath said. “This is actually the largest-ever data set used to study this phenomenon.”
To analyze the photos, the research team used software capable of reading facial expressions by the shapes and positions of mouths, eyes, eyebrows, noses and other facial features.
“We didn't intervene at all in the process of our data analysis,” Luangrath said. “So there's really no human bias in it at all. It's not like, well I think that person was happier. Or this research assistant thinks that person was happier.”
Counterfactual thinking has been widely studied across the field of psychology, including its effects on and connection to mental health, motivational goals, decision making, excuse conjuring and self-esteem — among other things.
And it reveals the gap some experience between subjective and objective interpretations of events and experiences.
“There really is this difference between objective standings and subjective feelings about how someone would interpret their performance,” Luangrath said, noting a spectator might be inclined to praise a silver medal performance. “But for a lot of people, that might not feel like a win.”
Even without conducting interviews or hearing athletes’ honest impressions of their results, this kind of photo analysis can be revealing, according to the researchers.
“It is sometimes difficult to control our facial expressions,” Luangrath said, “providing a lens into what people think and feel.”
And Luangrath said she’ll be using that lens in the coming weeks when she takes in the Olympic performances.
“I would encourage everyone to just look at the facial expressions of the athletes,” Luangrath said. “These responses to performing are fascinating.”
And while her counterfactual-thinking findings might not always hold true, she said, “On average, this effect does play out”
“That bronze medalist will probably be grinning ear to ear.”
Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games
When: Opening ceremonies are scheduled to be rebroadcast at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Iowa time. In real time, they start at 6 a.m. Friday, Iowa time.
Where: Viewers can watch on NBC or via the NBC app, or on its Peacock streaming service.
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