University researcher finds U.S. residents prefer to be a “big frog in a small pond”

Thursday, July 13, 2017 - 9:02pm

A new study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan found U.S. residents are more likely to prefer being a “big frog in a small pond” over a “small frog in a big pond” compared to people in China.

Rackham student Kaidi Wu, the study’s lead author, is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in psychology. However, she started this project about three years ago when she was an undergraduate at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, pursuing a degree in piano performance. She added a psychology degree when she was a junior and started exploring cultural differences. The work was recently published in Social Psychological and Personality Science.

In the study, over 600 adults from both the United States and China were asked a series of questions about education and work. In terms of education, Chinese people were more likely than U.S. residents of European descent to prefer being a below-average student in a top 10 college over a top student at a top 100 college, according to the Michigan News. With regard to business, Chinese employees more often prefered to work in a lower position at a global top 10 company than in a higher position at a top 100 company than U.S. residents of European descent.

“Imagine you’re standing at the crossroads of college decision-making or company decision-making — would you rather go to kind of a mediocre place and stand out as a star or go to a prestigious place but you’re kind of like the guppy there?” Wu said.

She added comparable questions are asked all the time on sources like Reddit, Buzzfeed or College Confidential, and oftentimes the advice is, it’s better to be a big frog in a small pond. However, she said, no one has really looked to see how people come to these decisions.

“What we found is that cultures really vary in how they make this decision,” she said. 

For part of the study, people were asked to imagine themselves in the aforementioned college decision-making scenario. In another part, the researchers asked respondents directly if they would rather be a big frog in a small pond or vise versa.

Wu grew up in Shanghai, and there is a Chinese idiom that says it’s better to be the head of a chicken, than the tail of a phoenix — the equivalent of a small frog in a big pond. In Korea, there is an analogous idiom, as well.

Wu said she found it almost funny that all cultures recognize the same problem at some point in history and develop different ways of addressing it.

“(The University of) Michigan is a great place — it’s full of cultural psychologists who have been studying cultural differences for decades,” she said. “One of the dimensions, in terms of cultural differences, is individualism-collectivism. It’s kind of a tension between the individual and standing out versus kind of fitting in, cooperation and group.”

Wu said there were a couple of explanations for the dichotomy presented by different culture’s responses.

On one hand, she said in the past, anthropologists used to compare cultures of differing levels of economic development or education. Then, in the 1980s, she said a psychologist named Geert Hofstede did a large-scale cross-cultural study and extracted a reductive dimension that summarized the differences among the several cultures; one of these dimensions was individualism-collectivism.

Western cultures value individualism, Wu explained, referencing the “Me Generation,” a focus on self-esteem and feeling unique. She compared this ethos to the Olympics in China where masses of people collectively develop an incredible performance.

“Originally we thought maybe it’s because individualism, people want to stand out as the big frog, versus collectivism, people kind of want to … see themselves as part of the big pond,” she said. “It turned out, that was not the case. What happened is that there is an alternative dimension called dignity versus face.”

She said, in general, East Asian cultures are face cultures that care about preserving face. Wu said in face cultures, people care a lot about how they are judged by others, whereas in dignity cultures, such as in the United States, people aren’t so much concerned with others as they are with themselves and how they feel about themselves. This finding turned out to be at the center of the difference in decision-making for the study.

Wu said her team was surprised by this finding because it seems intuitive for cultural psychologists to put forth the individualism-collectivism dichotomy as underlying a lot of differences. She noted, in fact, the two are not entirely contrasting.

“You can be very interdependent, and you can also be very independent at the same time, depending on context,” she said.

Wu said she also thinks there is a misperception of East Asian cultures that value collectivism as always preserving social harmony; she said there is often a “lovey-dovey,” rosy picture of how East Asians relate to each other, when in fact, East Asian people rank very high in terms of social comparison. In other words, it is not as if people in East Asia do not want to be the “big frog.” 

In an email interview, Stephen Garcia, an associate professor of psychology and organizational studies and co-author of the paper, said he enjoyed exploring about the frog-pond scenario, as it is so prevalent in everyday life.

“It was interesting to learn more about the frog-pond effect,” he wrote. “We all recognize the tradeoff between being the big frog in a small pond versus being the small frog in a big pond. This basic problem applies to our lives in many ways, as we decide which kinds of ‘ponds’ to enter. In these studies, it was interesting to learn more about the role of culture in shaping our preference.”

Garcia also noted it would be interesting to see how people’s preferences on the subject change over time.

“I think it would be interesting to explore people's past pond experience - being a big frog in a small pond or small frog in a big pond -affects their preferences for the pond experience,” he wrote. “It would also be interesting to see if people become less concerned with this tradeoff over time.”

LSA junior Riley Brantley is a psychology major. In an email interview, Brantley emphasized the importance of the impact of culture on behavior.  

"I think psychology is an incredibly interesting field - in particular studies of this nature which focus on the effects of culture on our own beliefs and behaviors. This study highlights how pervasive these cultural effects can be on both a societal and individual level and recognizes the relevance of cultural consideration within the field of psychology," Brantley wrote.