With the Beijing Winter Olympics upon us, Team USA has made clear that it is approaching this year’s Games with a special emphasis on the mental health of its athletes.
This perhaps comes as no surprise after American gymnast Simon Biles set off an impassioned conversation about the emotional tribulations of elite athletes when she withdrew from several events of the Tokyo Olympics last year. She liberated others to share their own struggles with performing under intense pressure (not to mention televised scrutiny), and this new openness shows no signs of abating. At the end of January, top-ranked Brazilian surfer Gabriel Medina announced that he would take a season off from the World Surf League to better tend to his own mental health. Role models like Biles and Medina are especially important right now as the COVID-19 pandemic has arguably left more people than ever facing mental-health crises of their own.
But few people know that, for scientists—or Team Science, as we like to call ourselves—athletes have long served as a microcosm of sorts for studying how all humans confront adversity. In a landmark 1995 study, psychologists Victoria Medvec, S.F. Madey, and Thomas Gilovich noted that bronze medalists, on the whole, visibly appeared significantly happier than the silver medalists who beat them out.
We saw it at the Tokyo Summer Olympics when an ecstatic Great Britain women’s gymnastic team narrowly edged out Italy to take home the bronze—the first team medal in U.K. women’s Olympic gymnastics in decades. And we’ve already seen it at this year’s Winter Games when gold medalist Eileen Gu and bronze medalist Mathilde Gremaud comforted visibly upset silver medalist Tess Ledeux immediately after the women’s freestyle skiing big air final.
Medvec and the others argued that bronze medalists appear happier than second place finishers because the most easily imagined counterfactual, or alternative outcome, for the silver medalists was the gold; in contrast, the most easily imagined alternative for the bronze medalists was failing to medal at all. In other words, perspective is everything—except we don’t always realize which way our perspective is pointing.
As a behavioral economist who has studied everything from the microeconomics of public education to the tipping habits of rideshare passengers, testing the effects of different mental perspectives plays a key role in many of the field experiments I conduct. Scientists view such insights as calls to construct a “choice architecture” to reach an outcome that everyone prefers. Marketers are masters of such framing effects. For example, a brand might try to sell you ground turkey by highlighting on the label that it’s 95% fat free, rather than 5% fat. With the former you’re more aware of the positive qualities of the turkey; with the latter the negatives leap out. Framing effects influence our decisions in a variety of ways, from how we consume electricity to determining whether we cast a ballot in the next election.
Researching incentives, I frequently compare the effects of “loss framings” with “gain framings.” In one recent study, for example, we gave one group—the “Gain Group”—of Chicago area teachers a bonus at the end of the school year if their pupils hit a certain benchmark on test scores. The “Loss Group,” however, was given their bonus at the start of the year, with the condition that they would have to pay back the money if their students’ scores fell below a certain threshold. We call this the “clawback.” Want to guess which students did better? The students whose teachers were in the “Loss Group.” They were motivated not to pay back the bonuses they’d already received so gave it that little extra in the classroom.
The underpinnings for such behavior is an active area of research, but one explanation is quite simple. For humans, the pain of loss is more psychologically powerful than a gain of the same intensity. The reason we developed this mental asymmetry is fairly straightforward, evolutionarily speaking. When our species was struggling to survive in the wilderness a hundred thousand years ago, obtaining some extra food would make tomorrow easier. But losing our only food meant there might not be a tomorrow. The possible stakes of loss were higher than those of gains, so we evolved to become very sensitive to loss and thus to try to avoid it at all costs. This is known as the endowment effect, or loss aversion, which was famously researched by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.
Now let’s return to those grimacing silver medalists and smiling bronze medalists who will be all over our TVs this month. Clearly, the winners of the bronze will likely see their performance through a gain frame (they won third place instead of fourth), while the winners of the silver may see their performance through a loss frame— they didn’t manage to place first.
So, how can we apply this behavioral lens to the predicament of athletes, and so many of us who become tortured not by how we already performed, but how we might perform. The loss that affects our behavior in this case is one that hasn’t happened yet, but could. It’s a hypothetical. This uncertainty generates anxiety, and for some people some of the time this can be crippling. The question is, what should they do? Once again, it comes down to incentives.
I have two suggestions. The first is to consider research that relates to work I completed 20 years ago in a paper titled, “Preference Reversals of a Different Kind: The ‘More is Less’ Phenomenon.” In this case, when comparing choices, people could easily rank things like silver and bronze medals when they were put together, but when in isolation the rankings in many cases reversed, with more (silver) oftentimes being viewed as less.
What this means for the silver medalists seeking happiness is that they should always juxtapose the counterfactual as the next rung down, rather than one rung up. Likewise, before the competition, all athletes should view the counterfactual world as “I don’t currently have any Olympic medals, so the rest is gravy.” These two tricks will keep the athletes firmly in the “gain” domain, and mentally away from the “loss” domain because there is nothing to lose. They are already there in our eyes anyway. After all, no Olympian is a loser. They had to win countless times just to get to wear their country’s uniform.
So what about if this “I have already won just by being here” strategy just doesn’t work?
A second approach comes not from studying behavior but from looking into the central decision center directly, the brain. We have conducted research using functional magnetic resonance imaging to scan brains of traders both buying and selling goods. As inexperienced traders, they greatly fear loss. But, we found that after traders gain experience with giving something up (i.e., moving from the gold rung to the silver rung) there is a reduction in right anterior insula activation during moments of loss. This means that with experience, traders learn to code losses in a different part of their brain, which makes them feel the loss to a lesser degree.
An implication of this work combined with other research is that the loss is not as painful as the athlete anticipates at the beginning of the competition. Now, what is left is just to call on a bit of game theory: at the very beginning of the competition the athlete needs to “backward induct,” which means understand that even if things don’t go well, the pain will be much less severe than they think. Such mental gymnastics are not only useful for gymnasts, but for all of our Winter athletes too!
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