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Psychologist Kaidi Wu of the University of Michigan, the study’s corresponding author, told PsyPost that she was interested in the topic for two main reasons.

“It is hard to imagine going through life without having to make frog-pond decisions: which school to go to, which internship to choose, which company to work for,” she explained. “What we end up choosing has downstream consequences and may significantly alter the paths of our lives. It is no surprise that this topic has interested sociologists, economists, and educational psychologists for decades. However, although these studies tell you how you would feel after you’ve joined the “pond” of your choice, I have always wondered how people come to these decisions in the first place.”

“Which brings me to the second reason. It’s a well-known adage in the West that ‘it is better to be the big frog in a small pond.’ I grew up in Shanghai, and I wasn’t really familiar with this idiomatic expression until I arrived in the U.S. Nonetheless, I am well aware of frog-pond quandaries each time I encountered them.

“What’s interesting is that cultures around the world have come up with a myriad of metaphors,” Wu continued. “They all recognize the same decision dilemma, but have different ways of going about it. The Chinese have a saying that ‘it’s better to be the head of a chicken than the tail of a phoenix’, whereas the Koreans sometimes acknowledge ‘it’s better to be the tail of a dragon than being the head of snake’. Be it the ‘Frog-Pond’ or the ‘Chicken-Phoenix’, these adages paint a kaleidoscopic canvas of decision-making that is culturally informed. And I thought it would be interesting to explore the diversity in frog-pond decision-making rather than just proffering a universal solution.”

In their three-part study, Wu and her colleagues found that Americans were more likely than Chinese to prefer being a “big frog in a small pond” rather than a “small frog in a big pond.” When given the option of attending a top 10 ranked college while having below-average grades or attending a top 100 ranked college while having above-average grades, Americans tended to choose the second option.

The study, which was published in the Social Psychological and Personality Science, examined 888 students and working adults from the U.S. and China.