Social comparison effects on academic self-concepts: Which peers matter most?

Social comparisons with peers are important sources of self-development during adolescence. Many previous studies showed that students’ academic self-concepts form by contrasting one’s own achievement with the average of one’s class or school – this is called the Big-Fish-Little-Pond Effect. Based on social comparison theory, however, we would expect some peers to be more likely social comparison targets than other peers. This could be the case, for example, because they are more visible to students or students perceive them as similar to themselves. In their study, MiSoC researcher Zsófia Boda and her co-authors Malte Jansen and Georg Lorenz from the Humboldt University of Berlin used longitudinal social network data and models to analyse which peers play the most important role for social comparison effects on academic self-concepts of students. They examined how the average achievement of friends, of study partners, and of peers perceived as popular by the student affected the general academic self-concept, as well as the role of same-gender and same-ethnic peers. They also investigated how each of these specific effects compared to the effect of the classroom’s average achievement. The study was based on a German longitudinal sample of 2,438 students (44% no recent immigrant background, 19% Turkish immigrant background, 10% Eastern European immigrant back-ground, 27% other immigrant background) from 117 school classes that were followed from grade 9 to10. Results from longitudinal social network analysis showed that class average achievement had a stable negative effect (confirming the Big-Fish-Little-Pond Effect – being around others with achievement lowers one’s own academic self-concept). Results, however, do not show additional effects of specific types of peers. The study suggests that classrooms provide a special setting that imposes social comparisons with the “generalized peer” rather than with specific subgroups of peers.