A new paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Social Psychological and Personality Science sought to better understand what influences those decisions—what psychological factors explain why one person might prefer to be an under-qualified student at Harvard than an overqualified one at Northeastern and why another would prefer the opposite. The University of Michigan researchers compared East Asians and European Americans on the assumption that cultural contexts play a huge role, and their analyses confirmed that speculation: The former were far more likely to prefer being a small frog in a big pond than the latter.
This conclusion may not come as a surprise given common perceptions about what distinguishes East Asian cultures from white American ones. Asians are known to be much more collectivistic, to value humility, and to tend to make decisions based on the common good rather than personal gain. Their white counterparts, on the other hand, are known to be individualistic, to self-promote by competing with peers, and to make decisions based on personal ambition. Extrapolating from that, East Asians might be more likely to assess themselves based on the larger social group to which they belong, while European Americans could be expected to evaluate themselves based more on how they compare to others within their group.
To the researchers’ surprise, though, these cultural stereotypes played little role in explaining their findings. In fact, they found that the East Asians they surveyed were greatly influenced by self-promotional tendencies—it was just a different species of self-promotion: the pursuit of prestige.
East Asian cultures aren’t just collectivistic, said Kaidi Wu, the lead researcher and a graduate student in social psychology at Michigan. They’re also what she described as “face” cultures. In such cultures, “it’s not only important for you to know that you are doing well, it’s also really important for other people—a stranger on the street, a relative, an employer who takes five minutes to glance through your resume—to evaluate you and think of you as this person who’s coming from a really good place. … Your evaluation is predicated on what other people think of you.”
Wu and her coauthors conducted three studies as part of the analysis. The first simply asked a randomly generated list of University of Michigan students whether they’d prefer to be a big frog in a small pond or vice versa. Whereas roughly 75 percent of the East Asian respondents—most of whom were born in the U.S. or had immigrated to the country at a young age—said they’d prefer being a small frog in a big pond, the same was true for just 59 percent of the European American ones.
The second study was slightly different in that the survey didn’t cite the frog-pond analogy and consulted adults in mainland China rather than East Asian students in the U.S. The researchers asked respondents whether they’d prefer attending a top-10 college where they’d be below average or a top-100 college where they’d be above average; they then asked a similar question but replaced “college” with “company” to gauge workplace preferences. The findings mirrored those from the first study: The Asian participants were more likely to prefer being a small fish. Fifty-eight percent of Chinese respondents preferred the top-10 college, and 29 percent of them preferred the global top-10 company; that was the case for just 27 percent and 14 percent of European American respondents, respectively.