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Self-Esteem and the Frog-Pond Effect

Research examines the effects of comparison groups on self-esteem.

Key points

  • Self-concept and self-esteem are determined, in part, by making social comparisons.
  • High self-esteem from being, for instance, an attractive person among average-looking people is called the big-fish-little-pond effect.
  • High self-esteem from being, say, an extremely attractive person in a group of unattractive people is called the huge-fish-tiny-pond effect.
Source: RobinTheHooded/Pixabay

An article to be published in the August 2021 issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science, by Zell and Lesick of the University of North Carolina, explores an extreme form of self-other comparison called the frog-pond effect.

The frog-pond effect

We all compare ourselves with others—in terms of looks, health, personality, academic abilities, work skills, wealth, etc. These comparisons can affect our self-esteem and self-confidence. (For the purposes of this article, self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-evaluation will be used interchangeably.)

An effect commonly observed in social comparisons is called the frog-pond or the big-fish-little-pond effect: People tend to feel better about themselves when they are a big fish (i.e. have a high rank) in a little pond (i.e. a group with a low rank) than when they are a little fish (i.e. have a low rank) in a big pond (i.e. high-ranking group).

In short, the frog-pond effect concerns an individual’s frame of reference and comparisons the person makes in determining his or her status.

To illustrate, consider a good dancer admitted to a very selective program or elite school—the elite school being the “big pond” in this context. One would expect the dancer to experience high self-esteem and self-confidence, having been admitted to a school that ranks highly. Yet, he or she might experience lower self-confidence in this school compared to a much less selective school (“little pond”). Why?

Because at the prestigious school, the dancer’s comparison group consists of the school’s students, who are very talented and high achieving. If the dancer were to attend a school that is less selective and filled with less talented students, this individual will outshine more students and thus experience a self-esteem boost.

The key factor in making comparisons, then, is one’s status and rank in the reference group. Whether the individual is a dancer, a college professor, or a business leader, having a low rank in a high-ranking group is associated with lower self-confidence, compared to having a high rank in a low-ranking group.

But would the same effect hold if the comparisons were extreme? In other words, what if the person was not just a big fish, but a huge fish in a tiny pond? Or not just a small fish, but a tiny fish in a huge pond?

For instance, instead of being a decent business student admitted to a not-so-selective business school, what if the student attended the lowest-ranking business school in the country? Would he or she experience an even greater self-esteem boost—a “huge-fish-tiny-pond effect”—from being better than most students there? Or would his/her self-esteem drop because the school is the worst in the country? These are the types of questions the investigation described below attempted to answer.

Extreme Social Comparisons: Methods and Findings

Study 1: 187 college students (136 females; average age of 20 years; 67 Caucasians). Participants completed a reasoning test; they were then told they ranked either moderately or extremely better/worse (depending on the assigned condition) compared to others at their school, and their school ranked moderately or extremely better/worse than other schools.

The results supported a huge-fish-tiny-pond effect, which, compared to the big-fish-little-pond effect, was larger by over 50%.

Study 2: 193 students (153 females; 19 years, average age; 52 Caucasians). Unique to this investigation was a huge-fish-huge-pond group (extremely high status for both the participants and their schools) and a tiny-fish-tiny-pond group (extremely low status for them and their school).

The results suggested that the huge-fish-tiny-pond effect may arise from a greater focus on rank within the group and reduced focus on the group’s rank overall.

Study 3: 172 students (138 females, average age of 18 years; 74 Caucasians). This study included conditions in which participants were told how their scores compared to all test-takers in the US.

The findings showed, the “huge-fish-tiny-pond effect biases self-evaluations by inflating them even when people are performing poorly in the population at large.”

Last, a meta-analysis of the findings of all investigations indicated that compared to the tiny-fish-huge pond condition, those in the huge-fish-tiny-pond condition showed significantly more positive emotions and self-evaluation (e.g., feeling more satisfied and proud of themselves). The huge-fish-tiny-pond effect was very robust (overall effect size D = 2.05, 95% CI [1.94, 2.17]).

Source: KeithJJ/Pixabay

Takeaway: Self-esteem, Self-evaluation, and Extreme Comparisons

The frog-pond effect occurs frequently (e.g., after joining a new workplace, gym, club, neighborhood, college). Sometimes the frog-pond effects are extreme (e.g., when a student accepted into a world-class university obtains extremely low grades).

Intuitively, we may assume a person who ranks low in a highly competitive and prestigious program might still experience positive feelings from being associated with such an exclusive program. Indeed, “People enjoy basking in the reflected glory of successful others by merely associating with distinguished individuals or joining highly valued social groups.”

Yet, as the present research shows, sometimes such conditions amplify the frog-pond effect, resulting in more extreme negative self-evaluations (in the case of ranking very low in a highly competitive program).

So, these findings indicate what matters the most in self-evaluations is status and rank in the reference group.

This does not mean one should associate with “worse” people—those who are less wealthy, talented, intelligent, accomplished, or successful—just to have more self-esteem and self-confidence. However, it does mean we need to be aware of the demoralizing effects of an even temporary lowering of status.

Therefore, whether you plan to move to a better neighborhood, attend a selective school, or immigrate to a new country (where you might have to start from zero), you should anticipate the psychological effects of having a lower status and prepare for it. For example, join additional (less selective) groups, or explore other ways to feel good about yourself (e.g., practice self-compassion).

Joining less selective groups might be just the “confidence trick” you need to help protect your ego, temporarily, as you gather needed resources to overcome challenges and achieve your goals.