Jerry Seinfeld probably doesn’t need any help from me in the self-esteem department, but if he did it’s hard to imagine many things cooler than having one of your comedic riffs turned into a full-fledged Ivy League academic paper.
I can’t offer any proof that’s what actually happened, but it makes for swell conjecture, given that the comedian did a bit on the disappointment of those Olympic athletes winning silver medals, and now – many years later – three professors come up with a study that says bronze medal winners are generally happier than the ones who get silver.
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I have never seen the Seinfeld bit, but I did read the transcript online after hearing about it on Wisconsin Public Radio yesterday afternoon. This morning I figured out that USA Today had also done a piece on the study, though reading that online didn’t show any mention of the comedian.
I’ll quote directly from the article: Research by three U.S. academics, who analyzed heat-of-the-moment reactions, medal-stand temperament and interviews of Olympians, shows that bronze-medal winners, on average, are happier with their finishes than silver medalists. Take silver, and you tend to fixate on the near miss. Score bronze, and you are thankful you were not shut out altogether.
“When you come in second,” said Thomas Gilovich, chairman of Cornell’s psychology department and one of the study’s co-authors, “it’s the most natural thing in the world to look upward. ‘I got the silver and that’s what it is, but what is it not? It’s not the gold.’
“With the bronze, the natural place to look is downward. ‘I got the bronze. That’s what it is, but what it isn’t is off the medal stand.’ “
Psychologists describe it as counterfactual thinking; Seinfeld offered more of a layman’s interpretation.
“I think, if I was an Olympic athlete, I would rather come in last then win the silver. If you think about it ... if you win the gold, you feel good. If you win in the bronze, you think: ‘Well, at least I got something.’
“But if you win that silver, it’s like: ‘Congratulations! You ... almost won. Of all the losers, you came in first of that group. You’re the No. 1 ... loser. No one lost ... ahead of you.' ”
There’s a lot more, but you get the idea. I’d love to know if the authors of the paper had seen the Seinfield episode in question and if they make any reference or footnotes to it. If anything I'd ever written had inspired any of the denizens of academia to bona fide research, my head would get so big I'd be hard to live with. Best I've ever done is get footnoted in a couple of ostensibly serious studies about the impact of racism on baseball cards. Whoopee!
I also got a kick out of another piece of the story that noted the researchers had interviewed Empire State Games athletes as part of the study. On the morrow, I’ll offer my own gold-silver-bronze anecdote from one year of the Winter Games segment of New York’s pioneering amateur athletic competition, and unlike Jerry Seinfeld, it’s not something for me to boast about.