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CEP discussion paper

Without my medal on my mind: counterfactual thinking and other determinants of athlete emotions


How achievement makes people feel depends upon counterfactual thoughts about what could have been. One body of evidence for this comes from studies of observer ratings of Olympians' happiness, which suggests that category-based counterfactual thoughts affect the perceived happiness of Olympians. Silver medallists are less happy than bronze medallists, arguably because silver medallists think about how they could have won gold, and bronze medallists feel lucky to be on the podium at all. We contribute to this literature by showing that the effect of category-based counterfactual thoughts on Olympians' happiness depends on the margin by which athletes secured their medal. Although gold and bronze medallists appeared happier the better they performed, silver medallists were less happy when they were closer to winning gold. This suggests silver medallists feel disappointed relative to gold medallists but that bronzes do not feel particularly fortunate relative to non-medal winners. Teams were rated as happier than individual athletes and Olympians happier than Paralympians. Observers' ethnic and gender similarity to athletes negatively influence happiness ratings; whilst observers' self-reported happiness has a negligible effect on ratings. We integrate these findings with prior literature on counterfactual thinking and the determinants of happiness, and suggest avenues for future research.


Paul Dolan, Chloe Foy, Georgios Kavetsos and Laura Kudrna

21 June 2016     Paper Number CEPDP1436

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This CEP discussion paper is published under the centre's Community Wellbeing programme.