Counterfactual thinking and facial expressions among Olympic medalists: A conceptual replication of Medvec, Madey, and Gilovich's (1995) findings

J Exp Psychol Gen. 2021 Jun;150(6):e13-e21. doi: 10.1037/xge0000992. Epub 2020 Nov 9.


Counterfactual thinking, or contemplation of "what could have been," influences facial expressions of Olympic medalists. Medvec, Madey, and Gilovich (1995) revealed that bronze medalists appeared happier than silver medalists after competition in Olympic events. Two prominent explanations for this phenomenon exist: the formation of (a) category-based counterfactuals and (b) expectation-based counterfactuals. First, Medvec et al. (1995) demonstrated that silver medalists formed an upward comparison to the gold medalist with thoughts of "I almost won Gold" while bronze medalists formed a downward comparison to a fourth place finisher with thoughts of "at least I won a medal." A second explanation suggests that medalists form expectation-based counterfactuals in which silver medalists are more disappointed since their prior expectations for performance were higher than bronze medalists (McGraw, Mellers, & Tetlock, 2005). To test these 2 explanations, we compiled a large dataset of medal stand photographs from the Olympic Multimedia Library and Getty Images for the 2000-2016 Olympic games as well as Sports Illustrated's predictions. Using automated facial expression encoding, we conducted a conceptual replication of prior work and found evidence supporting both category-based and expectation-based counterfactual accounts of Olympic medalists' expressions. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2021 APA, all rights reserved).

MeSH terms

  • Facial Expression*
  • Happiness
  • Humans
  • Sports*