The Size of Success

Cultural forces shape what "winning" looks like.

By Abigail Fagan, published November 2, 2017 - last reviewed on April 17, 2018

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Is it better to be a big frog in a small pond or a small frog in a big pond? When high school students and college graduates make this type of decision every year, their preferences may depend partly on their culture, according to a recent paper published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Both Chinese participants and American participants of European descent were given a hypothetical choice of a university or company: Would they prefer a spot at a top 10 institution at which they would fare below average, or at a top 100 institution where they would perform above average? Chinese participants were more than twice as likely as Americans to choose to be a "small frog" in the "big pond" that elite places represented. In one study, 58 percent of the Chinese participants preferred the top 10 college scenario, compared to 29 percent of Americans.

Concern for one's own prestige helped to explain the cultural difference: Chinese participants reported more of this concern in a survey than did the Americans, on average. Research suggests that America leans toward being a "dignity culture," in which individuals tend to derive value intrinsically, while East Asian countries have more of a "face culture," in which people tend to derive value from the respect of others, explains Kaidi Wu, the paper's co-author and a Ph.D. student in social psychology at the University of Michigan. A cultural emphasis on external respect might make the imprimatur of a top school or company even more appealing.

When mulling over more or less prestigious places to land, it's important to also consider how you'll perform at different levels of competition, as well as how much weight is placed on institutional pedigree in your particular field, Wu advises. "While it's not universally good for you to go to the small pond and give up on the Ivy League college," she says, "there are a lot of ways to succeed, and you don't need to be in the big pond to do so.