Even When You’re A Member Of An Elite Group, It Can Be Demoralising To Rank Lower Than Your Peers

By Matthew Warren

Imagine that you are a high-achieving student at a school which, overall, doesn’t perform that well. You know that your grades are better than most of your peers’, so you probably rate your academic ability quite high. You are, in other words, a big fish in a small pond. 

Now you transfer to a school in which the other students consistently get top marks, perhaps even better than yours. You’re now the small fish in a big pond, and although your own ability has remained the same, you begin to doubt yourself and actually rate yourself lower than you had before.

This “big-fish-little-pond” effect shows that our academic self-concept can be profoundly shaped by how we compare ourselves to our peers. Now a study in Social Psychological and Personality Science has found that the size of this comparison matters: the effect is even more pronounced when people are extremely high achieving in very low ranked groups, or vice-versa.

It might seem obvious that when people make more extreme comparisons with their peers, their self-evaluations should receive more of a boost (or take more of a hit, depending on the direction of that comparison). But as Ethan Zell and Tara Lesick from the University of North Carolina note in their new paper, no-one had actually looked into this.

In the first study, the pair asked 187 people to complete a verbal reasoning test which involved completing sentences. Participants were then told that the same task had been completed by other students from their own university, as well as students from 39 other universities.

Participants received different information about how they had done relative to their peers at their university, and how well their university scored compared to the other institutions. There were four conditions: big-fish-little-pond (participants did better than 65% of peers; university ranked better than 35% of other institutions); little-fish-big-pond (participants did better than 35% of their peers; university ranked better than 65% of others); huge-fish-tiny-pond (participants did better than 85% of peers; university ranked above just 15% of others); and tiny-fish-huge-pond (participants did better than only 15% of peers; university outranked 85% of others).

Participants then rated their own verbal ability and performance on the test. As expected, big fish in little ponds — i.e. those who read that they were somewhat above average in a somewhat below average group — gave themselves better self-evaluations than little fish in big ponds. But this effect was accentuated for the other two conditions: huge fish in tiny ponds — i.e. those who read that they were far above average in a far below average group — rated themselves as even better than big fish. Tiny fish in huge ponds rated themselves as even worse than little fish.

In a subsequent study, the team looked at what happened to this effect when people also received information about their overall level of performance. This is important because in a group that is far above average, someone who scores well below average for that group could still have a pretty good objective performance.

In this study, some participants in the huge-fish-tiny-pond condition were told they had done better than 35% of all American test-takers, while some in the tiny-fish-huge-pond condition were told they had done better than 65% of Americans.  This meant that participants in the huge-fish-tiny-pond group were 30 percentile points lower than those in the tiny-fish-huge-pond group. And yet, the effect still occurred (albeit at a smaller scale): they rated their abilities as higher than those in the latter group.

Finally, the researchers found evidence that this effect is driven by people focussing on their own rank within a group, rather than on how their group compares to others. Participants ranked extremely highly in their group rated their abilities as high no matter whether the group was itself of high or low rank. Similarly, those who ranked low in their group rated their ability as low, regardless of their group’s rank.

Overall the work shows that even if you are a member of an elite group, it can be demoralising to learn that you are a “tiny fish” who is performing worse than your peers, the authors write. Further work is needed to see whether this effect extends to real-world situations, and explore what its repercussions are for people’s career and study choices.

Taking Social Comparison to the Extremes: The Huge-Fish-Tiny-Pond Effect in Self-Evaluations

Matthew Warren (@MattBWarren) is Editor of BPS Research Digest