Read the full article at The Atlantic.

There’s a saying in China that it’s better to be the head of a chicken than the tail of a phoenix. The premise of the aphorism—it’s better to be over-qualified than under-qualified relative to one’s surroundings—is so widely accepted that similar versions of it exist across cultures. In Japan, they tend to say that it’s better to be the head of a sardine than the tail of a whale. Americans and Brits often declare that it’s better to be a big frog (or fish) in a small pond than a little frog in a big pond.

Extensive research supports these axioms, particularly in the realm of education. Longitudinal studies have consistently shown that high-performing students at less-selective schools feel more competent, have higher GPAs, and have more ambitious career aspirations than low-performing students at more-selective schools.

Despite the compelling evidence and age-old maxims, however, people abide by that advice to different degrees in different situations. While one study found that on average, roughly two-thirds of people would prefer to have a high IQ and live in a less-intelligent place than the reverse, for example, that percentage varied from 18 percent to 80 percent across different situations.

new paaper published in the peer-reviewed journal Social Psychological and Personality Science sought to better understand what influences those decisions—what psychological factors explain why one person might prefer to be an under-qualified student at Harvard than an overqualified one at Northeastern and why another would prefer the opposite. The University of Michigan researchers compared East Asians and European Americans on the assumption that cultural contexts play a huge role, and their analyses confirmed that speculation: The former were far more likely to prefer being a small frog in a big pond than the latter.

This conclusion may not come as a surprise given common perceptions about what distinguishes East Asian cultures from white American ones. Asians are known to be much more collectivistic, to value humility, and to tend to make decisions based on the common good rather than personal gain. Their white counterparts, on the other hand, are known to be individualistic, to self-promote by competing with peers, and to make decisions based on personal ambition. Extrapolating from that, East Asians might be more likely to assess themselves based on the larger social group to which they belong, while European Americans could be expected to evaluate themselves based more on how they compare to others within their group.

To the researchers’ surprise, though, these cultural stereotypes played little role in explaining their findings. In fact, they found that the East Asians they surveyed were greatly influenced by self-promotional tendencies—it was just a different species of self-promotion: the pursuit of prestige.

East Asian cultures aren’t just collectivistic, said Kaidi Wu, the lead researcher and a graduate student in social psychology at Michigan. They’re also what she described as “face” cultures. In such cultures, “it’s not only important for you to know that you are doing well, it’s also really important for other people—a stranger on the street, a relative, an employer who takes five minutes to glance through your resume—to evaluate you and think of you as this person who’s coming from a really good  place. … Your evaluation is predicated on what other people think of you.”