Study: Americans are more likely than Chinese to want to be ‘a big frog in a small pond’

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Culture matters it comes to being a the big frog in a small pond or the small frog in a big pond. New research has found that Americans would rather be remarkable in an average place, while Chinese would rather be average in a remarkable place.

Psychologist Kaidi Wu of the University of Michigan, the study’s corresponding author, told PsyPost that she was interested in the topic for two main reasons.

“It is hard to imagine going through life without having to make frog-pond decisions: which school to go to, which internship to choose, which company to work for,” she explained. “What we end up choosing has downstream consequences and may significantly alter the paths of our lives. It is no surprise that this topic has interested sociologists, economists, and educational psychologists for decades. However, although these studies tell you how you would feel after you’ve joined the “pond” of your choice, I have always wondered how people come to these decisions in the first place.”

“Which brings me to the second reason. It’s a well-known adage in the West that ‘it is better to be the big frog in a small pond.’ I grew up in Shanghai, and I wasn’t really familiar with this idiomatic expression until I arrived in the U.S. Nonetheless, I am well aware of frog-pond quandaries each time I encountered them.

“What’s interesting is that cultures around the world have come up with a myriad of metaphors,” Wu continued. “They all recognize the same decision dilemma, but have different ways of going about it. The Chinese have a saying that ‘it’s better to be the head of a chicken than the tail of a phoenix’, whereas the Koreans sometimes acknowledge ‘it’s better to be the tail of a dragon than being the head of snake’. Be it the ‘Frog-Pond’ or the ‘Chicken-Phoenix’, these adages paint a kaleidoscopic canvas of decision-making that is culturally informed. And I thought it would be interesting to explore the diversity in frog-pond decision-making rather than just proffering a universal solution.”

In their three-part study, Wu and her colleagues found that Americans were more likely than Chinese to prefer being a “big frog in a small pond” rather than a “small frog in a big pond.” When given the option of attending a top 10 ranked college while having below-average grades or attending a top 100 ranked college while having above-average grades, Americans tended to choose the second option.

The study, which was published in the Social Psychological and Personality Science, examined 888 students and working adults from the U.S. and China.

“We often hear about the touted benefits of being the ‘big frog in a small pond.’ But the choices we make are the products of our culture. The next time you are faced with a frog-pond dilemma, take heart that there is not one right way of choosing; nor is there a universal standard of a single rational decision to be made,” Wu said.

“It is easy to have preconceived notions about cultural differences. In the psychological literature, it has been long known that East Asians (the ‘collectivists’) tend to attune to a collective self embedded in social groups, whereas Westerners (the ‘individualists’) tend to focus on an individual self as a distinctive agent. So if we just look at the overall pattern that Chinese are more likely to choose the big pond, it is tempting to think Chinese don’t want to be the big frog as much as Americans, because as a collective whole, Chinese may not want to engage in social comparison within the pond in order to preserve social harmony.”

“But that was not the case. The real reason Chinese go for the big pond is that they are more concerned about prestige.”

“The caveat here is that as we draw cultural delineations, it is easy to end up with a reductionist way of construing opposing schemas: West – individualism, independence, analytic thinking; East – collectivism, interdependence, holistic thinking. But cultures are complex, porous, dynamic, ever-changing,” Wu told PsyPost.

“Although it might be intuitive to conjure up collectivists who are cooperative and less inclined to compare themselves with others, they are not. In fact, we found Chinese are much more likely to engage in social comparison than Americans. Other qualitative accounts have also revealed strong desire to compete and achieve even within one’s pond (you may have seen the ‘Asian grading scale’ meme – A is average, B is bad, C is crap, F is find another family).”

“To fathom any cultural phenomena, we need to delve into the social structure and historical underpinnings of the culture of study, and be willing to entertain possibilities beyond the individualism-collectivism dichotomy. Otherwise we might end up with an impoverished understanding with a specious reasoning.”

“If cultures across the globe differ in their propensity to choose the “big pond”, what does this mean as the world becomes more globalized and when cultures interact? Over the past ten years, U.S. colleges witnessed a dramatic 85% increase of international students, a majority of whom hail from Asia. Coming from cultures that place a heavy emphasis on prestige and obtaining an elite education, it makes sense for Asian internationals to vie for the big pond.

“In fact, many Chinese international students have gone to great lengths to get into (or help their children get into) top U.S. colleges,” Wu told PsyPost. “But what appears to be a culturally normative choice in China may not be one in the U.S. If you look at top executives at Fortune 100 companies from 1980 to 2011, the percentage of those with an Ivy League undergraduate degree has decreased. If you didn’t come from a big pond, you can still do well in life.

“This doesn’t mean that people should give up on their pursuit of the big pond all together, but it pays to think twice about consequences of being the small frog: sinking to the bottom of the class risking being expelled, language difficulties, mental health struggles. At the end of the day, is it worth choosing the big pond – in a cultural context where big frogs in small ponds can also succeed?”

The study, “Frogs, Ponds, and Culture: Variations in Entry Decisions“, was also co-authored by Stephen M. Garcia and Shirli Kopelman.