There's a Jerry Seinfeld stand-up special from 1998 where he says "You win the gold, you feel good. You win the bronze, you think, 'Well, at least I got something.' But you win that silver, that's like, 'Congratulations! You almost won. Of all the losers, you came in first of that group. You're the number-one loser." In 1995, Cornell psychologists Victoria Medvec and Thomas Gilovich teamed up with University of Toledo psychologist Scott Madey to see if athletes really felt that way.
For a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the researchers edited down film clips of roughly 40 silver and bronze medal winners at the 1992 summer Olympics. The film clips came in two versions: the athlete's immediate reaction to the winner announcements directly following each event, and the athlete at the medal ceremony several hours later. Next, without telling them which medal each athlete won, they asked undergraduate students to rate the athletes' reactions on a 10 point scale, with 1 being "agony" and 10 being "ecstacy."
The results found that the bronze medalists appeared much happier than the silver medalists. The participants rated the bronze medalists at a 7.1 immediately following their win announcement and a 5.7 on the podium, whereas the silver medalists were rated only 4.8 after the announcement and 4.3 at the medal ceremony. Similar results were shown after the judo competition of the 2004 Olympic Games.