Grey Matter
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Learning From the Olympics

Published on 08/17/2016 by Bruno Kahne

"I'm disappointed! Very disappointed!" These are the words of Agbegnenou and Manaudou when they received their silver medal last week. A surprising but common reaction of athletes receiving a silver medal. How can people be disappointed when they are recognized in their field as one of the three best athletes in the world? In the Olympics three medals are given: gold, silver and bronze, and one could expect that the level of satisfaction would be found in the same order: the gold medalist being the most happy, the bronze being the least. But reality is that bronze medalists are happier than silver medalists. How can this be?

The explanation is found in what psychology calls counterfactual thinking, a strong tendency we all have to live more in what could have happened (e.g. If only I had...) or in what could happen (e.g. What if...), than in the here and now. Upward counterfactual thinking, focuses on how the situation could have been better. It triggers guilt, regret and a loss of confidence. Downward counterfactual thinking happens when we think that the situation could have been worst. This triggers relief, joy and laughter.

During the Olympics, gold medalists are unconsciously going through downward counterfactual thinking. This is why they jump for joy. If they had made the least mistake, they wouldn't be standing on top of the podium. Same for the bronze medalists: if another athlete had been just a little bit better, they would have received no medal at all and would have remained with the huge majority of athletes who don't have a name or a face. But for silver medalists, the story is different. Silver medalists go through upward counterfactual thinking. They are obsessed by the thought that if they had been just a little bit better they would be the one standing on top of the podium with a gold medal around the neck. Difficult to cope with such regrets. This explains their disappointment and tears.

It is because silver medalists look at what they didn't get and bronze medalists at what they got that contrary to all expectations bronze medalists are happier than silver medalists (for more data on the topic see Medvec, Gilovich, Madey, Matsumoto and Willingham). The way we deal with expectation and comparison is the key. This is true in the Olympics as it is in our everyday life.

Expectation is the shortest road to frustration and disappointment. "If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans" said Woody Allan. Life doesn't owe us anything. People neither. So aim high. Work hard. Get up when you fall. But always, always embrace with gratitude whatever good things life is giving you, even if it is not a gold medal. 

"Comparison is the thief of joy" said Roosevelt. You can have the best salary or bonus you dreamed of, you still will be disappointed if you suddenly discover that a colleague who is less efficient and less committed than you got more. Marketing pushes us to compare ourselves to people who have a better job, a better car, a better house, etc. This is an endless story of frustration. Someone will always have something we don't have. The only person we should compare ourselves to is... ourselves. Am I better today than yesterday?

So at work and in your private life, don't be a silver medalist. Be a gold or a bronze one. Focus on what you have, not on what you don't have. And to help you do so, here is a fun and easy exercise: for the coming 10 days, before falling asleep, list 3 things you are grateful for.

Bruno Kahne

Bruno Kahne

Leadership Faculty


Excellent. I'd love to spend more time and discuss some questions I have.

11/25/2017, 17:32 - Amrish
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