February 01, 2006

No cigar

I’m fortunate to work with a company that provides a ton/tonne of education and training. A few times a month we have lunchtime seminars from various outside experts, and today a professor of marketing from the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Business came in to talk about “overchoice” and the science behind offering a multitude of versions of the same essential product, versus offering no choice, versus providing a product “decoy.” Can’t go into detail, but it was all fascinating, particularly the psychological aspects of how we choose and what makes us happy.

But one element of his talk stood out, at least as it concerns competing pipers and drummers. Apparently, scientific studies show that those who win third-prize are actually happier than those who get second. The Olympic silver medallist is almost always disappointed, while the bronze-finisher is almost always very pleased.

The essential reason for this is that the second-prize-winner suffers from regret: If I had only done one little thing differently I’d have won. The third-prize-winner is just happy to make the list.

I see this all the time in piping and drumming and band contests, and have experienced it myself. They say that second-prize is the hardest prize, and it’s scientifically true that there’s more to the cliche than we may realize. There are great pipers who have been second several times in Gold Medal contests and seem to live with a degree of bitterness. There’s always that guy who is the “Best Golfer Never to Have Won a Major,” and the “Best Band Never to Win the World’s” label.

If they finally win the big award, there seems to be more relief than happiness. The golfer or the band or the solo piper are essentially just as good as they were before they won, they just no longer have the millstone of “what if?” around their neck.

It’s all about one’s reference point. If playing well is the goal, then chances are we will be psychologically satisfied with second-prize. If winning is the goal, then second-prize will certainly come with regret and disappointment.





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