East and West have opposite views of personal success, according to psychologists

How big is that pond?
How big is that pond?
Image: Reuters/David W Cerny
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Would you rather be an impressive employee in a mediocre firm, or land a role at the most prestigious company in your industry, knowing you’d have to work harder to prove yourself in comparison with brilliant colleagues?

The answer to that question might seem highly personal, based on factors like whether or not you’re a competitive person, your self-esteem levels, and how much you relish a challenge. In fact, there’s another strong factor at play: People from different cultures react very differently to the question of whether it’s better to be a big fish in a small pond, or vice versa.

Research already exists on whether people who are in jobs or at university are more contented if they have a chance to shine at an individual level, versus if their institution is more highly regarded. Those studies have tended to find that “bigger fish” feel more competent and achieve more than those struggling in high-achieving environments. But a group of psychologists from the University of Michigan wanted to go back to the point before choices are made, asking people theoretical questions about the decisions they take. Specifically, the researchers compared people with East Asian backgrounds and European American backgrounds.

They found that Americans are much more likely to favor being a big fish in a small pond. East Asians, and specifically Chinese people, are much more likely than Americans to lean towards being a smaller fish in a bigger (i.e. more impressive) pond. There were four experiments in total. In the first, researchers asked 270 students at a large American university whether they would rather be a “big frog in a small pond” or vice versa. Of the students with East Asian American backgrounds, three quarters said they’d rather be a small frog, compared with just under 60% of students with European American backgrounds who said the same.

The researchers then compared American and Chinese adults. They asked the participants, who were recruited using Mechanical Turk, a service that matches up participants with experiments for a small fee, whether they would rather attend a top university but perform below average, and whether they would rather work for a top global company but do less well in comparison to their peers. Over half the Chinese adults chose the renowned university, compared with just a third of Americans. In the case of the firms, well over half of people from both groups chose to do better at a less well-known firm, but Chinese people were still more likely to choose being a “small frog” than were Americans.

The researchers put the difference down to perceptions of prestige. East Asian, and specifically Chinese, culture tends to prioritize the collective; American culture puts the individual at the center. A final experiment sought to discover how American and Chinese people made judgments about whether they were succeeding. They found that Chinese people were more likely to compare their performance to the performance of people in other groups. Americans, meanwhile, were more likely to compare themselves to people within the same group, to judge whether or not they were doing well.

The study, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, adds to a body of research concerned with the idea of environment and an individual’s conception of their own “size” relative to it, often discussed using the same analogy: either fish or frogs, and ponds.

In East Asian cultures, it’s “not enough that you know you’re doing well in your school,”said Kaidi Wu, a PhD student in psychology who led the research. “It is much more important that other people—an outsider, a family relative, a mere acquaintance, a future employer who has five seconds to glance through your resume—also recognizes your academic excellence,” she said. One way is to go to a school that already has a stellar reputation.

America is the opposite: “Think about how many times themes like ‘You are your own person’ or ‘Stop worrying about what other people think’ course through song lyrics and self-help books,” Wu said, concluding: “The choices we make are the products of our culture.”