Asian students prefer to be
A frog contemplating its life. Pic: Shutterstock.

The Japanese proverb goes: A frog in a well does not know the great sea.

And the sea is where students of East Asian background are hustling to chase the prestige at, suggests a new research by a group of psychologists from the University of Michigan, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Based on one question “Would you rather be the big frog in a small pond or the small frog in a big pond?”, the researchers had conducted four experiments to find out how far our culture influences our choices in education and careers.

“Frog-Pond decisions represent important crossroads we all face: which university to go to, which internship to choose, which company to work for,” says lead author Kaidi Wu, as reported by

“What we end up choosing has downstream consequences and may significantly alter the paths of our lives.”

In the first experiment, 270 students in a large American university were asked whether they would rather be a “big frog in a small pond” or a “small frog in a big pond”. Most students with East Asian American backgrounds (75 percent) chose to be small frogs while less than 60 percent with European American backgrounds said the same.

They then asked American and Chinese adults whether they would work for a prestigious global company but do less well than their peers or to enroll in a top university but perform below average in the next two experiments.

Career-wise, more Chinese chose to be small frogs working in big ponds.

When it comes to the university debate, more than half (58 percent) of Chinese students say they would more likely choose to be a “small frog”, i.e. an average student in a top 10 school, than a “big frog” in a small pond – an above-average student at a top 100 school. Only 29 percent of European-American students chose the same.

What lies behind this East and West disparity is said to be how each group perceives prestige. In the fourth experiment, researchers asked American and Chinese people to judge how they were succeeding.

Chinese people compared how they were doing by comparing their performance to the performance of those in other groups. Whereas their American peers compared themselves to people among the same group.

Wu said in East Asian cultures, it’s “not enough you know you’re doing well in your school.”

“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,” Wu said, as quoted by Quartz.

And the most effective way to do so is via a degree from a prestigious school.

Compare that with American pop culture which champions the opposite: Individuality.

Phrases like “‘You are your own person’ or ‘Stop worrying about what other people think'” pepper the American-influenced world in contrast to East Asians’ collectivist approach, according to Wu, who said cultures are also “complex, porous, dynamic, ever-changing” and there is “no universal standard of a single rational decision to be made.”

Nonetheless, at the end of the day, culture still plays a part in determining what frog we are and which pond we choose to be in.

“The choices we make are the products of our culture,” summarizes Wu.

Happy swimming.

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