big fish little pond effectThe Big-fish-little-pond effect (BFLPE) refers to the theoretical prediction of an equally able student having shown lower academic concepts and results when seen in the higher-achieving student groups. However, the same student will have a better performance in lower-achieving or low performing groups.

The psychological phenomenon is seen primarily due to the social comparison that is usually done based on local norms. It is well known that there are some negative consequences of being in a more competitive educational environment or being in a more competitive group as well. These negative consequences are highlighted by the Big-fish-little-pond effect. The exact psychological nature of the effect has still not been profoundly captioned.


The Big-fish-little-pond effect is a frame of reference introduced by two researchers namely, Herbert W. Marsh and John W. Parker in the year 1984. According to the Big-fish-little-pond model, it is seen that individuals compare their own self-views and beliefs with their friends and family. The individuals who are equally capable have higher self-beliefs and concepts when they are in a less capable group as compared when they are in a more capable group.

In Academics, the student’s self-concept arises in being a big fish in a small pond (a student who has qualities in the regular reference group) than to be a big fish in a big pond (an able student in a group which is also equally able like him).

Students who are high achieving and gifted students are just the same to the effect as less talented students are. This effect depends on the achievement of the reference group of which you are a part of. In simple terms, if you are a talented or qualified student, you will be superior in the group that has less talented students. If you are in a group that has exactly similar talented students like you, then your value will be lowered and you will be a general student in that group.


In 2013, Malcolm Gladwell stated about the Big-fish-little-pond effect in his book. Marsh and O’Mara in 2008 demonstrated the academic self-concept among the 10th graders. The study was based on the educational attainments of those students five years after high school graduation; which was found different when compared to their school grades, school test scores, intelligence, and their socio-economic status.

According to the Big-fish-little-pond effect, it is better for academic self-concept (ASC) to be a high achiever in a reference group having relatively low achievers than being a high achiever in a reference group that has a good ratio of high achievers.


The Big-fish-little-pond effect is thought to be produced as a result of the two opposing social comparison effects which are the Assimilation effect and Contrast effects.

  • An Assimilation effect is seen when the individual’s self-concept is pulled towards the target of comparison. The pull ultimately leads to a positive relationship between one’s beliefs and the comparison group.
  • A Contrast effect is seen when the individual’s self-concept is pushed away from the target of comparison. This push leads to a quiet negative relationship between the self-concept and the comparison group.

According to Schwarz and Bless as stated in 1992, in the acceptance or rejection of a model of judgment, assimilation effects may usually occur when the comparison target is included in the mental representation of the person. On the other hand, contrast effects might occur when the target of comparison is excluded from the mental representation of the person. Since academic self-concept is seen to have a negative relationship with the achievement of the group, it is still assumed that the contrast effect lies much stronger than the assimilation effect.


When the formation of the academic self-concept (ASC) takes place, the question that arises is which one has more impact; classroom achievement or class achievement. One hypothesis suggested that a friend’s average achievement has a larger effect on this self-concept theory. This is known as the friend dominance hypothesis and is also said to be consistent with the local dominance effect model.

The local dominance effect model points out that people tend to rely the most on the local comparison sources when they have multiple comparison sources available in front of them. Friends are considered to be a more local source for comparison and competition than other classmates. So, this indicates that a friend should have more effect on self-concept factors than any other classmates.


An alternative hypothesis to this effect suggests that the average achievement of a class has a larger effect on academic self-concept than on a friend’s average achievement. There are several studies that support this hypothesis. It is hence showed that an individual shows a rather strong assimilation effect towards their comparison target when they were a part of a group or when they were focused on emotional bonding.

In 2009, Huguet et al. supported the idea that a friend may induce smaller contrast effects in an individual than the classmates. Additionally, they also induce larger assimilation effects. The hypothesis which states that class average achievement has a larger effect has been granted the most support. In 2013, some researchers also compared the effects of friend’s average achievement with the class average achievement on global academic, mathematical, and language self-concept. In their study, they found that the negative effect of class average achievement was always greater when compared to the negative effect of a friend’s average achievement.

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