Why Whites and Asians Have Different Views on Personal Success

A new study explores why the latter are far more likely to opt for an elite college where they'd struggle than a so-so one where they'd excel.

A library at Harvard is shown from afar with the lawn stretching in front of it
The Baker Library at the Harvard Business School (Charles Krupa / AP)

There’s a saying in China that it’s better to be the head of a chicken than the tail of a phoenix. The premise of the aphorism—it’s better to be over-qualified than under-qualified relative to one’s surroundings—is so widely accepted that similar versions of it exist across cultures. In Japan, they tend to say that it’s better to be the head of a sardine than the tail of a whale. Americans and Brits often declare that it’s better to be a big frog (or fish) in a small pond than a little frog in a big pond.

Extensive research supports these axioms, particularly in the realm of education. Longitudinal studies have consistently shown that high-performing students at less-selective schools feel more competent, have higher GPAs, and have more ambitious career aspirations than low-performing students at more-selective schools.

Despite the compelling evidence and age-old maxims, however, people abide by that advice to different degrees in different situations. While one study found that on average, roughly two-thirds of people would prefer to have a high IQ and live in a less-intelligent place than the reverse, for example, that percentage varied from 18 percent to 80 percent across different situations.

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.

The results from the third study, which sought to understand the motivation underlying these cultural distinctions, were the most counterintuitive for Wu and her colleagues. The researchers looked at the degree to which survey respondents compare themselves with others—e.g., I often compare how many Twitter followers I have with how many Twitter followers my coworker has. This measure is often used to gauge people’s frog-pond preferences: The more likely a respondent is to compare herself to others, the more likely she is to prefer being a big frog in a small pond. Interestingly, Chinese adults were more likely than white American ones to report engaging in such intragroup comparison.

There are limitations to the research, of course. The analysis relied on small sample sizes of between roughly 200 and 300 participants for each of the studies, though that’s typical of psychological studies in recent years. Furthermore, it’s all but impossible to suss out the extent to which a person’s cultural background influences her decision-making, especially as a growing number of students identify with multiple cultures. And myriad factors influence an individual’s decision about where to go to college and work.

Still, Wu emphasized that the study is the first to explore how culture shapes frog-pond education decisions, and its findings challenge conceptions about why people make the decisions they do. In cultural research, “it’s very easy to come up with these reductionistic approaches”—i.e., that Americans are individualistic, East Asians are collectivistic—and to make assumptions based on those simplifications, Wu said.

“There’s this seeming contradiction between the collectivistic Asian and the Tiger Mom-ish, uber-competitive Asian student,” she said. East Asians’ tendency toward big-name institutions at the expense of being outshined by others “isn’t because they are more collectivistic, that they want to preserve harmony and fit into the groove and be part of the larger pond.” Wu’s study suggests it’s more likely because they’re seeking prestige—and defining their success based on where they go to school rather than on how their academic performance compares to that of others.

Wu  argued that there are merits to being a small fish in a big pond, particularly when it comes to academia. Indeed, some research shows that top-10 universities produce almost three times the number of tenure-track professors as do the top 20, in large part because having a social network with elite academic scholars is so crucial to getting hired in heavily hierarchical settings. Wu, who grew up in Shanghai and moved to the U.S. when she was 16, noted that she has “reaped the benefits of a big pond” in that her peers and professors at the University of Michigan have served as a great source of motivation. Some research also suggests that the big pond might be a more advantageous choice for low-income students of color because of the resources and connections they gain from selective schools.

But being in a big pond can be a double-edged sword. Wu’s mission is to better understand the cultural distinctions that help explain these decision-making patterns—insight that is particularly relevant in the age of globalization and might help the growing numbers of Asian students in the U.S. better navigate the country’s higher-education system. In the last decade, the international-student population in the U.S. has grown by 85 percent, with the majority hailing from Asia. In vying for big ponds, many become strained by the pressure to succeed, overexerting themselves to the point that they get swallowed by mental illness or resort to cheating. Meanwhile, the percent of senior Fortune 100 executives with Ivy League degrees has declined since 1980, while the percent with public-university degrees has increased. And a Gallup poll from 2014 of nearly 30,000 college graduates found that attending a prestigious college has no bearing on an individual’s happiness in life and work.

“At the end of the day,” Wu asked, “is it worth choosing the big pond in a cultural context where big frogs in small ponds can also succeed?”