A world-wide phenomenon? An evaluation of the cultural and economic generalisability of the big-fish-little-pond, using multilevel modelling

Year: 2012

Author: Seaton, Marjorie, Marsh, Herbert, Craven, Rhonda

Type of paper: Abstract refereed



Although a positive self-concept has been shown to be a crucial construct in many areas of human functioning, research evidence for the big-fish-little-pond effect (BFLPE) has demonstrated that students in high-ability classes and schools have lower academic self-concepts than their equally able counterparts in mixed-ability environments. To establish support for the generalisability of the BFLPE, it must be shown to exist in diverse cultural settings. As Matsumoto (2002) suggests, cross-cultural research can inform us whether our psychological constructs can be universally applied. Unfortunately, cross-cultural BFLPE research has been limited to mostly developed and individualist countries. The purpose of the present investigation was to evaluate the universality of the BFLPE across culturally and economically diverse countries, using sophisticated statistical modelling.


The present investigation used the 2003 Program for International Student Assessment database (PISA), containing 265,180 students, in 10,221 schools, across 41 countries. The Individualism Index scale was used to classify countries along an individualist/collectivist dimension. World Bank classifications were used to determine whether a country was economically developed or developing.

The PISA data have a three-level hierarchical structure: Individual students are nested within schools, which in turn are nested within countries. Ignoring this multilevel structure, by using traditional single-level statistical methods, can lead to serious statistical problems (e.g., violations of assumptions of independence and spurious significant results). Hence, multilevel modelling was used to ensure that results were not biased by ignoring the nested structure. Three sets of multilevel regression analyses were conducted. The first set of analyses tested the generalisability of the BFLPE across the entire cross-national sample. The second set tested the BFLPE separately in the 41 individual countries that comprised the cross-national sample. The third set of analyses tested the moderating effect of cultural orientation and economic development on the BFLPE, using the entire cross-national sample.


The effect of school-average achievement on self-concept was negative for the total sample, negative for each of the 41 countries considered separately, and statistically significantly negative in 38 countries. Moderating analyses revealed that the BFLPE was present irrespective of a country's economic development or cultural orientation.


The generalisability of the BFLPE was supported.  Results indicated that the BFLPE is not only a symptom of developed countries and individualist societies, but it is also evident in developing nations and collectivist countries of the world. Implications for BFLPE theory and educational practice are discussed.