In honor of the 2016 Rio Olympics that are happening right now, I decided to bring up a classic study on the emotional reactions of Olympic medalists. The study was covered by Scientific American a few years ago. The study showed a counterintuitive result:
In athletic competitions there are clear winners and losers. In the Olympics, the gold medalist won the competition; the silver medalist has a slightly lower achievement, and the bronze medalist a lower achievement still. One might expect that their happiness with their performance would mirror this order, with the gold medalist being happiest, followed by the silver medalists, and then the bronze.
Psychologists Victoria Medvec and Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University, and Scott Madey of the University of Toledo think that this phenomenon can be explained by counterfactual thinking. This means that people compare their objective achievements to what “might have been.”
The most obvious counterfactual thought for the silver medalist might be to focus on almost winning gold. She would focus on the difference between coming in first place, and any other outcome. The bronze medalist, however, might focus their counterfactual thoughts downward towards fourth place. She would focus on almost not winning a medal at all.
It is because of this incongruous comparison that the bronze medalist, who is objectively worse off, would be more pleased with herself, and happier with her achievement, than the silver medalist.
The study behind this story was a quasi-experiment. As you read the journalist's study description, decide which quasi-experimental design the researchers used:
To scientifically investigate this question, the researchers took video footage of the 1992 summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. Specifically, they recorded the medal ceremonies and showed them to undergraduate students, as well as footage from the athletic competitions immediately following announcements of the winners. They asked them to rate the happiness displayed by each of the medalists on a 10-point scale, with 1 being “agony” and 10 being “ecstasy.”
On average, the silver medalists scored a 4.8, and the bronze medalists scored a 7.1 immediately following the announcement. Later in the day, at the medal ceremony, the silver medalists scored a 4.3 on the happiness scale, while the bronze medalists scored 5.7. Statistical analyses proved that both immediately after winning, as well as later at the medal ceremony, bronze medalists were visibly happier than the silver medalists.
Here are some questions about the study:
a) What is the independent variable in this design? What is the dependent variable? (Hint: They operationalized the dependent variable in two ways).
b) Is the independent variable a between-groups or within-groups IV? Why is the IV considered a quasi-experimental independent variable?
c) Which quasi-experimental design appears to be conducted here? Your choices are: non-equivalent control group posttest only, non-equivalent control group preptest-posttest, interrupted time-series, or non-equivalent control group interrupted time-series.
d) The researchers provide enough information for you to create a graph of the results. Try it! (Which DV will you pick to graph?) Why do you think the journalist didn't provide the happiness values for the gold medalists?
e) Quasi-experimental studies take advantage of real-world situations, but they cannot establish full experimental control. The researchers are unable to randomly assign people to win silver or bronze medals. Therefore, what confounds might be present in this design? How might the researchers have controlled for such confounds in their study?