Daily Archives: February 22, 2010

Going for the Gold

The Winter Olympics have been a huge draw for many people this year. In fact, for Americans and Canadians, they have dominated the television ratings since opening night. Given the excitement of many of the sports, it’s not surprising the games have garnered so much attention. In fact, when comparing these games to the Summer Olympics, it seems that many of the featured sports are considered rather extreme and dangerous. There is snowboarding, which landed one American Olympic hopeful in the hospital with a traumatic brain injury prior to the games. Then there are the high speed sports of skeleton and luge, which involves athletes sledding on a track either head first (in the case of skeleton) or feet first (in the case of luge) with no protection other than a helmet. The danger of these latter two sports has been especially apparent following the death of a Georgian athlete during a training run in which he was traveling at an estimated 89 miles per hour.

So why is it that so many athletes not only choose to participate in a sport with such risk but seem to be constantly pushing themselves to more extreme levels? One possible answer comes from the personality psychology literature and is related to a trait called Sensation Seeking. This individual difference, which is thought to vary from person to person, is often characterized by 4 behaviors: Thrill and Adventure Seeking, Experience Seeking, Disinhibition, and Boredom Susceptibility. Not surprisingly, individuals who score high in this measure are more likely to engage is risky behavior that is known to be thrilling and provide high levels of excitement. Also not surprisingly, athletes who participate in extreme sports (such as skydiving) rate especially high on this measure. What’s also interesting is some researchers have argued that sensation seeking involves addictive-like components. Namely, high sensation seekers experience a “rush” when engaging in risky behaviors but often need to engage in even riskier behavior soon after to experience this same feeling.

It’s no wonder then that so many athletes who participate in the Winter Olympics are returning every 4 years with bigger and faster maneuvers. When competing in a sport filled with people who are always looking for their next rush, the words “Go big or go home” become a way of life.

The Danger of Winter Olympic Sports.

Meertens, R. M., & Lion, R. (2008). Measuring an individual’s tendency to take risks: The Rick Propensity Scale. Journal of Applied Psychology.

Olympic expectations gone awry: Plushenko conforms to silver medalist syndrome.

Avid Olympic watchers most likely tuned in to Thursday night’s main event: the men’s figure skating free skate. Evan Lysacek won gold for the United States, becoming the first American man to win it since 1988. Russia’s Evgeni Plushenko took the silver – losing by a mere 1.31 points overall – and ended Russia’s streak in the sport. Had Plushenko won the gold, as he expected, he would have been the first man to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals since 1952.

But he didn’t win it. And as social psychology would predict, the disappointment generated by being so close to an expected win (and then losing) has some pretty unpleasant side effects. For starters, Plushenko acted like a true to form sore loser when he told reporters, “Obviously, Evan needs the medal more than me, maybe because I’ve got one already.” He ended up never congratulating Lysacek and took off his silver medal immediately as he left the ice following the victory lap.

Psychologists explain this silver medalist syndrome as an effect of upward counterfactual thinking. In short, reflecting on how past events might have turned out better – especially if those alternative realities were within very close reach – has a unique sting to it to which no bronze medalist could even begin to relate. According to Medvec, Madey, and Gilovich (1995), bronze medalists are often happier than silver medalists – they smile more on the podium at the medal ceremony – because they focus on the alternative of winning no medal, whereas the silver medalists focus on the alternative of winning gold. Decision Affect Theory (DAT) extends this line of research to integrate the added effects of expectation: although good outcomes feel better when unexpected than when expected, bad outcomes bite extra hard when unexpected than when expected.

Adding it all up, high expectations for success + losing by a little more than a point + upward counterfactual thinking = Plushenko may have surprised us with his loss, but we social psychologists landed the aftermath with precision and grace.

Even in defeat, Yevgeny Plushenko steals show

When Less is More: Counterfactual Thinking and Satisfaction Among Olympic Medalists

The Affective Consequences of Expected and Unexpected Outcomes