When professors return tests, do you find yourself peeking at your neighbor’s grade? Or do you look to see how much your teammate is squatting? We do these things all the time in order to evaluate ourselves based on how we compare to others. In seeing how others perform, we can learn about our own performance. While you know how well you did, that information means more if you know how it holds up against others.
Self comparisons are a part of everyday life. As Fester (1954) proposes in his self comparison theory, they can help us learn about our own abilities and characteristics. What we learn about ourselves depends on the person or group that we make our comparison to. Comparing ourselves to someone similar to us tells us where we stand in terms of an ability or trait, comparing ourselves to someone much better than us can help us learn how to improve, and comparing ourselves to someone worse than us makes us feel good about ourselves. Whereas in some situations you choose who to compare yourself to, research has shown that comparisons are spontaneous and cannot be avoided (Blanton & Stapel, 2008).
One of the consequences of self comparison is that we tend to value local comparisons involving a smaller group over data from a larger sample. This can be a problem because it can lead us to perceive ourselves as better or worse than we truly are. For example, high-performing students at inferior schools rate themselves more favorably than low-performing students at superior schools. This general finding of giving more importance to your ability within a small group and neglecting how you do in a large group is known as the frog-pond effect. Another example of this idea is thinking that you aren’t smart because you have an SAT score of 1800, which is the lowest in your class, when in fact, compared to the entire population, you are well above average.
The current experiment (Alicke, Sell, & Bloom, 2010) was conducted to further the knowledge on the frog-pond effect as it pertains to local versus general comparisons. The study was conducted with groups of ten participants who were then randomly assigned to one of two subgroups of five members each. The participants completed a lie detection test in which they watched videos of people giving statements and had to judge whether the person was telling the truth or lying. They received bogus feedback about their performance on the task which divided them into one of four conditions. In the first and second conditions, participants were told that they ranked 5th and 6th, respectively, out of the group of ten. In the third condition, participants were told that they ranked 5th out of the group of ten, but last in their subgroup of 5. In the fourth condition, participants were told that they ranked 6th out of the group of ten, but first in their subgroup of 5. Participants then evaluated their performance and lie detection ability as a measure of their self-evaluations.
The results indicated that there was no difference in the self-evaluations of participants who were only told that they ranked 5th or 6th out of the group of ten (see Figure 1). Participants who were told that they ranked 6th out of the group of ten but best in their subgroup evaluated themselves significantly more favorably than participants who were told that they ranked 5th out of the group of ten but worst in their subgroup. Participants who were told that they ranked 6th out of the group of ten but best in their subgroup evaluated themselves significantly more favorably than participants who were only told that they ranked 6th out of the group of ten. Participants who were told that they ranked 5th out of the group of ten but worst in their subgroup evaluated themselves significantly less favorably than participants who were only told that they ranked 5th out of the group of ten.
These results suggest that people think more highly of themselves when they are first in an inferior group as opposed to last in a superior group, even if their overall rank is lower when the two groups are combined. It also suggests that people tend to use local comparisons for self-evaluations rather than larger data sources, which would actually be more helpful in evaluating themselves. In this way, simply categorizing people into groups can change the way that they evaluate themselves based on the performance of individuals within their group.
Although this experiment presents many interesting findings, it is not clear whether they will hold for people who are ranked farther from the middle of the large group. For example, would this same pattern occur if a person was last in a smaller, superior group but significantly above average in the large group? Because the experiment only examined people in the middle of the large group and either first or last within the subgroups, we do not know how far this phenomenon can be extended and at what point reality will override the local group dominance.
So the next time you are in a highly competitive group and you are not near the top, try to look at the bigger picture and evaluate yourself compared to the larger data source, rather than your smaller group.
Alicke, M.D., Zell, E., & Bloom, D.L. (2010). Mere categorization and the frog-pond effect. Psychological Science, 21, 174-177. doi: 10.1177/0956797609357718
Blanton, H., & Stapel, A. (2008). Unconscious and spontaneous and . . . complex: The three selves model of social comparison assimilation and contrast. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94, 1018–1032. doi: 10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1248
Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations, 7, 117–140. doi: 10.1177/001872675400700202