Moderation of the Big-Fish-Little-Pond Effect: Juxtaposition of Evolutionary (Darwinian-Economic) and Achievement Motivation Theory Predictions Based on a Delphi Approach

Herb Marsh*, M. Xu, Phil Parker, Kit-Tai Hau, Reinhard Pekrun, Andrew Elliot, Jiesi Guo, Theresa Dicke, Geetanjali Basarkod

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

4 Citations (Web of Science)


The big-fish-little-pond effect (BFLPE), the negative effect of school-/class-average achievement on academic self-concept, is one of educational psychology's most universal findings. However, critiques of this research have proposed moderators based on achievement motivation theories. Nevertheless, because these motivational theories are not sufficiently well-developed to provide unambiguous predictions concerning moderation of the BFLPE and underlying social comparison processes, we developed a Theory-Integrating Approach; bringing together a panel of experts, independently making theoretical predictions, revising the predictions over several rounds based on independent feedback from the other experts, and a summary of results. We pit a priori hypotheses derived from achievement motivation theories against the more parsimonious a priori prediction that there is no moderation based on previous BFLPE empirical research and Darwinian-economic theory (N = 1,925 Hong Kong students, 47 classes, M age = 12 years). Consistent with both BFLPE research and Darwinian perspectives, but in contrast to achievement motivation theory predictions, the highly significant BFLPE was not moderated by any of the following: prior achievement, expectancy-value theory variables, achievement goals, implicit theories of ability, self-regulated learning strategies, and social interdependence theory measures. Although we cannot "prove" that there are no student-level moderators of the BFLPE, our synthesis of social comparison posited in the BFLPE theory and an evolutionary perspective support BFLPE's generalizability. We propose further integration of our Theory-Integrating Approach with traditional Delphi methods, combining quantitative and qualitative approaches to develop a priori theoretical predictions and identify limitations in existing theory as an alternative form of systematic review.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1353–1378
Number of pages26
JournalEducational Psychology Review
Issue number4
Early online date8 Feb 2021
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2021


  • Academic self-concept
  • Achievement motivation theory
  • Big-fish-little-pond effect
  • Darwinian economics
  • Social comparison processes
  • Theory-Integrating Delphi Method


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