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The joys of winning the bronze medal?

Although you may think that the gold medalists at Sochi are on top of the world, scientific evidence tells a different story. An examination of subjective contentment of Olympic medal winners showed that athletes who win the bronze medal are actually happier than those who go home with the gold. How could this be? The answer lies with two unsung but essential motivations of the social brain: comparison and fairness. Instead of lamenting a third-place finish, bronze medalists have a tendency to compare themselves with the many other Olympic participants who did not receive a medal at all. As a result, they feel like winners. In the terms of contentment, athletes who win the silver come in last among Olympic medalists. Rather than celebrating their extraordinary performances, they focus instead on the fact that they may have narrowly missed winning a gold medal. Many leaders experience this same reaction when they receive a smaller bonus than they got the year before or a smaller bonus than their colleagues. The takeaway for business is that although the traditional incentive system for employees may make sense in terms of maximizing profit, it overlooks an important truth about how our brains operate. What is most important to people can’t be measured in dollars, Euros, or even Olympic medals. It’s how much they get (in rewards and compensation) in comparison to others.