The Nuance

How the ‘Frog-Pond Effect’ Distorts Your Self-Image

Few of us fully appreciate the role of social comparison in our well-being

Photo by Marcel Strauß on Unsplash

For a 2012 study in PLOS One, researchers invited a young woman into a laboratory at Ohio University.

The woman learned that she would be taking part in an “aesthetic judgment” experiment. The researchers took a photograph of her face and then asked her to sit at a table that held two objects: a computer monitor and a mirror.

On the monitor, the woman viewed a series of headshots of what the study termed “attractive professional models” — all of them women. Following this barrage of beautiful faces, the woman’s own photograph appeared on the screen. But it wasn’t just a single photo; the woman saw 13 pictures of herself scattered across the monitor. Looking closely, she could see that each version of her face was different from all the others.

Using a specially designed photo-editing program, the researchers had taken the woman’s photograph and created “morphs” — copies manipulated to make the woman appear either more or less attractive. Along with her original headshot, the woman was now looking at eight photographs that airbrushed and otherwise enhanced her appearance — dramatically, in some cases — and four photographs that marred her looks.

With the mirror to guide her, the woman was instructed to pick out her true image from the false ones. Even though the complimentary headshots outnumbered the adulterated ones by a two-to-one margin, the woman selected one of the unflattering photographs as the most authentic representation of what she saw in the mirror.

The researchers repeated versions of this experiment with roughly 70 other men and women. Over and over again, the people who looked at lineups of beautiful faces tended to select self-portraits that had been manipulated to look less attractive.

On the other hand, when the researchers flipped the script and showed people unattractive faces, those people tended to view their own faces more favorably.

Since the inception of social-comparison theory in the early 1950s, psychologists and sociologists have piled up evidence that human beings form opinions of themselves — their looks, aptitude, intelligence, and achievement — based in large part on the qualities they see in the people with whom they identify and associate. When those comparisons lead to inaccurate self-representations or appraisals, this distortion is sometimes referred to as the “frog-pond effect.”

The phrase stems from a 1966 paper that found college students at elite universities who had low GPAs tended to view their own academic abilities less favorably than students at lower-tier colleges who had good GPAs. “It is better to be a big frog in a small pond than a small frog in a big pond,” the author of that paper wrote.

The “frog-pond effect” continues to show up in research today.

“We use the term ‘frog-pond effect’ as shorthand for this tendency of people with a high rank in a low-rank group to evaluate themselves more favorably than people with a low rank in a high-rank group,” says Ethan Zell, PhD, author of the PLOS One study and an associate professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.

“These effects are magnified when we’re comparing ourselves to people we view as peers.”

In other words, we look at other people as a frame of reference when we are evaluating ourselves. While “upward” social comparisons can make us feel less attractive, less capable, or otherwise inferior, “downward” social comparisons tend to have just the opposite effect. “These effects are magnified when we’re comparing ourselves to people we view as peers, or those in a similar situation to ourselves,” Zell explains.

It’s difficult to overstate the role that social comparison plays in our lives, perhaps especially when we’re young or vulnerable.

Research has found that all of us engage in social comparisons — consciously or unconsciously — dozens and perhaps hundreds of times each day. To one extent or another, these comparisons influence every facet of our well-being and behavior, from our confidence and self-regard, to our willingness to take risks, to the likelihood that we’ll develop anxiety or depression.

Upward social comparison is not inherently harmful. “It can inspire us to take better care of ourselves, or to be ambitious in positive ways,” Zell says. But like anything else, too much of it can cause problems.

Unfortunately, modern life may overwhelm us with comparisons that distort our self-image and so threaten our well-being.

In the context of social media, the “highlight reel” effect describes people’s tendency to put only their best, most-flattering selves online. There’s mounting evidence, especially among young people, that the more time we spend looking at these glamorized depictions of others, the more the frog-pond effect and upward social comparisons do a number on our egos.

“Social media and technology have really expanded the reach of comparisons,” Zell says. Like the young woman in his study whose self-assessment took a hit after she viewed beautiful faces, many of us can’t help but feel inferior when we’re exposed to image after image or post after post of people who seem cooler, more interesting, funnier, prettier, or more stylish than we are.

“When we’re surrounded by people we view as somehow better than us — even if objectively we’re above average — that can be really demoralizing or deflating,” Zell explains.

Social media influencers may be especially damaging to our self-appraisals. We tend to view these people as peers, rather than what they really are — minor celebrities who are often paid handsomely to project a certain image or lifestyle. We may hear about their bad days or insecurities, but the overall message our brain is receiving is “this is a better version of me.”

“Changing our attention from the things we do not have to an appreciation of thing we do have may protect humans from the dangers of social comparisons.”

Before social media, most of our comparisons were based on face-to-face interactions with friends, schoolmates, co-workers, and those who occupied our real-world social spheres. We saw the good and the bad — the features and the flaws — in something closer to equal measure. And this helped properly calibrate our self-assessments.

There’s also evidence that, in offline contexts, we frequently downplay our shiniest attributes. Research has found that being the target of an upward social comparison is unpleasant for us, and so we tend to shift our behavior in an effort to better mesh with our peers. “We can sense when other people feel bad because we’re better off than them and we adjust, but that doesn’t seem to be the case on social media,” Zell explains.

All of this suggests that limiting your exposure to online sources of upward social comparison may pay all sorts of dividends. In the infinitely large pond that is the internet, almost all of us are going to end up feeling like small frogs.

There’s also evidence that gratitude practices are an effective countermeasure against negative self-appraisals.

Research has found that while social comparisons often trigger a sense of deprivation and all the negative feelings that attend it, gratitude has just the opposite effect. “Changing our attention from the things we do not have to an appreciation of thing[s] we do have may protect humans from the dangers of social comparisons,” wrote the authors of a 2019 study in Frontiers in Psychology.

Two gratitude practices seem to be especially helpful.

First, write down in a journal what you’re thankful for. Focus on people and positive social interactions, rather than personal achievements or possessions. “Reflect back on your day and think of the people you met and interacted with and are grateful for,” counsel the authors of a 2017 study in the Journal of Clinical Psychology. Doing this three times a week was associated with measurable improvements in well-being and positive affect, that study found.

Second, take time to tell the people in your life why you’re grateful for them.

“Expressing gratitude is really, really important because it helps us to overcome self-serving bias,” says Robert Emmons, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, and a leader in the field of gratitude research. “Grateful people are absorbed by the good that others are doing for them, and they don’t keep silent about it.”

We can’t switch off our social-comparison tendencies. But with a little effort, we can recalibrate them.

I write about health and science. I live in Detroit with my wife and kids. I’m trying to learn German, but my progress so far is nicht gut.

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