Is it better to be a big fish in a small pond?

Is it better to be a big fish in a small pond?

Indians too are what psychologists call a 'face culture'. We are more concerned about how others perceive us. Istock image

A student receives two job offers — one at a prestigious behemoth and the other at a local start-up with promising prospects. To most students, the choice is obvious. Why would you forsake a job at an elite multinational for an unknown, unpredictable future?

Research in psychology, however, suggests that this decision is not necessarily straightforward. While there are umpteen advantages to joining a reputed organisation, there are pluses attached to being a big fish in a small pond as well.

In an article in Scientific American Mind, psychologist Kaidi Wu cites a study in which a metaphorical question was posed to Caucasian and East-Asian Americans: Would you prefer to be a small frog in a big pond or a big frog in a small pond? 75% of Asian-Americans opted for the big pond, while 50% of the Caucasians did so. Likewise, when adults in the US and China were asked whether they would rather be a below-average student in a top 10 college or an average performer in a top 100 one, more Chinese selected the more prestigious institute.

If a similar study is conducted, Indians, like the Chinese, would pick renowned institutions because Indians too are what psychologists call a 'face culture'. In other words, we are more concerned about how others perceive us.

In contrast, Americans tend to have more of a 'dignity culture' wherein a person’s self-worth is prized over and above social judgments and approval. 

In his book David & Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell provides an anecdotal example of how a brilliant student, Caroline Sacks, chose to go to Brown University, a prestigious Ivy League institution, hoping to major in science. 

He argues that humans tend to compare themselves with their immediate peer groups most often as opposed to benchmarking themselves against more global standards. So, instead of comparing herself with other chemistry students in the world, where Sacks would possibly have been in the 99th percentile, she measured herself against her immediate peer group at Brown. As a result, her confidence plummeted and she began doubting her ability.

Gladwell argues that regardless of how smart you are, how you perceive yourself relative to your peers is more important in terms of your persisting with your chosen major. 

The Big Fish-Little Pond Effect put forth by psychologist Herbert Marsh, refers to students in highly competitive programmes having a more negative self-concept than students of similar capabilities in less elite institutions. A study led by Stanford professor Prashant Loyalka found strong evidence for this 'effect' in STEM subjects.

Another study by John Conley and Ali Sina Onder compared the academic output of doctoral candidates in economics. Unsurprisingly, the top students in elite institutions have the most impressive record. However, the merely ‘good’ students in top programmes don’t fare as well as the 'big fish in smaller ponds', who have a higher publication number in top journals.

So, while there are many benefits of attending a top-notch university or taking up a job at an elite multinational, there are also costs, that are rarely acknowledged. While you may be bedazzled by the plush facilities, access to world-class resources and the social prestige that a Big Pond confers, know that your self-concept may also be threatened by the outstanding cohort that surrounds you. If you thus feel demeaned and diminished, don’t assume that you cannot shine, just as spectacularly, if you pick a smaller pond.

(The writer is an educationist and author)

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