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Counterfactual Thinking

I recently learned that winning a bronze medal in the Olympics is better than winning a silver medal. I’m competitive; this makes no sense to me. How is placing 3rd in a competition better than placing 2nd?  These are elite athletes that are top in their sport; why wouldn’t they want the center stand on the podium after all the sacrifices made to compete? The answer is in a 1995 study completed by psychologists Victoria Medvec, S.F. Madey, and Thomas Gilovich. The study explores “counterfactual” thinking or alternative outcomes and explains this phenomenon.  And when you hear why, it makes sense.

I don’t have any Olympic athletes in my tribe, but I do have friends you may relate to. Years ago, a friend I played a round of golf with made excuses about every hole. If his ball didn’t land in the rough, he would have scored better (well…yeah 😊).  If his ball had not been in a divot, he would have scored better, etc.  These excuses were made for almost every hole, and it was exhausting. When I wasn’t annoyed, I found it interesting because he does work harder at golf than I do and is the better golfer. So why make excuses for an off day? I had the same bad luck that day that he did. I was hitting the ball everywhere but where I wanted it to go. On one hole, I put the ball in the water; I took a second shot from same spot, (had to prove a point) and I carried the water. I was happy with the double bogie I got on that hole; although I could have easily complained that if I hit my first shot like I did the second, I may have parred the hole. But why make my day worse by considering the what ifs or alternate outcomes?  Why engage in counterfactual thinking when it won’t change the outcome and will likely make my experience worse?

Coming back to our Olympians, why are bronze medalists happier than silver medalists?  The answer is simple: silver medalists tend to be upset, angry or sad that that they came so close to the gold medal and missed it, whereas bronze medalists are happy they did not place 4th and miss the podium. It’s all about perspective and framing a situation. The bronze medalist tends to look at their outcome as positive, “I made it”!  Whereas the silver medalist only focuses on alternative outcomes that would have led to gold.  It’s these “if only” scenarios that have the power to bring us down and prevent us from reaching our full potential.

So, next time you are tempted to think counterfactually and dwell on the what if’s—don’t.  Reframe the situation to see the positives and use that as your jump point to greater things.  You will be amazed at what you can do and how much better you feel when you think positively.

What thoughts will you reframe?

“Once you replace negative thoughts with positive ones, you’ll start having positive results.” – Willie Nelson

Have a great weekend.