The Situationist

Seeing Michael Phelps’s Gold Medal Situation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 19, 2008

Sam Sommers has another excellent (situationist) post, titled “The Greatest Ever? Not So Fast . . .” over at Psychology Today Blog. Sommers’s post is worth reading in its entirety (here), but here are a few particularly situationist excerpts.

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U.S. Swimmer Michael Phelps just won his 8th gold medal of the Beijing Olympics tonight, the 14th gold of his career. These are feats that have never been accomplished before, and it’s hard to argue with the conclusion that his is the greatest Olympic performance of all time. Some in the sporting world (and beyond) are also calling Phelps the greatest athlete of all time. But not so fast—a number of psychological considerations suggest that the pundits (and public) are likely getting a bit carried away.

Before I go any further, let me make one thing clear for the record. What Phelps has done is extraordinary and unprecedented. . . .

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But why would I suggest that Phelps might not truly be the “greatest athlete” ever . . . ? . . . . I can think of at least three relevant psychological issues:

First, there’s good reason to believe that a variation of the availability heuristic is at play here. This just happened. . . .

So if I ask you to name great athletes, whose name is readily available to you at the moment? Phelps, of course. More generally, even beyond the domain of sports, I’d argue that people are typically lousy at judging “the greatest ever” in any area, due to the availability heuristic among other factors. . . .

Second, in addition to availability, there’s also a self-motivated reason for us to see Phelps deemed the greatest ever. Because we were able to watch Phelps’ triumph and because we’ll have stories to tell about what we saw in these Olympics, we’re able to perceive a personal connection to what he’s done that goes so far as to make us feel good about ourselves.

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Finally, I think there’s also a compelling argument to be made that those who would call Phelps the greatest ever are doing what we humans often do in perceiving the world, namely not giving sufficient weight to the situational factors at play. . . .

[T]his debate is being pitched in largely dispositional terms (i.e., is he the greatest *athlete* ever, as opposed to is this the greatest athletic *performance* ever). And what I really mean to suggest is along the lines of the argument I made in a previous post, namely that important aspects of situations in daily life often escape our attention. In the case of Phelps, he has certainly had a terrific Olympics (now, that might be the greatest understatement of the century). But he also competes in a sport that presents its elite competitors with the opportunity to rack up multiple medals. Swimmers can compete in races of varying distances. There are races in 4 different strokes, as well as individual medleys combining strokes. Then there are relays as well. Is Mark Spitz the second-greatest athlete of all time?

The greatest of basketball and water polo players have a chance at 1 medal in an Olympics. Same with boxers and wrestlers. Track and field stars have more, but still not as many as swimmers. Consider Carl Lewis’ 1984 performance, when he won gold in the 100m, 200m, 4 x 100m relay, and long jump. Was Phelps’ 2008 demonstrably better than that? It’s hard to say. I’m quite sure this last argument will annoy the swimming fans out there, but what if Lewis had been afforded the same opportunities as Phelps to cover different distances in different ways? Swimmers have races in backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, and freestyle; how many medals could Lewis have won if he could’ve entered the 100m gallop, the 100m skip, and the 100m crabwalk?

OK, so you might resist that last analogy. But the crabwalk would be pretty fun to watch, wouldn’t it? And the bigger point is that Phelps’ historical milestone was attributable to a number of factors: his phenomenal training regimen, his unsurpassed drive to win, his genetic gifts, and more. But he also owes at least part of his title as greatest Olympian ever to the current set-up of the Games, which affords swimmers more opportunities to medal than most other athletes. To ignore this fact and crown Phelps greater than Lewis, Jesse Owens, Eric Heiden, Sonja Henie, Al Oerter, and others seems impulsive. Not to mention, of course, all the non-Olympic athletes who certainly merit consideration for the title of greatest ever.

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To read the entire post, which may well be the greatest post ever, click here.

For a sample related posts discussing the tendency to dispositionalize accomplishments that are largely situational, see “Promoting Dispostionism through Entertainment – Part III,” “Randomness, Luck, and other Situational Sources of Success and Failure,” ““Situation” Trumps “Disposition”- Part II,” “What’s Eating David Ortiz?,” and “David Vitter, Eliot Spitzer, and Now John Edwards: The Disposition Is Weaker than the Situation.”

For archives of all situationist sports posts, click here.

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