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.