2014. Vol.5, No.1, 62-69
Published Online January 2014 in SciRes (
Better than Me?! How Adolescents with and without Migration
Background in Germany Perceive Each Others’ Performance
in Class
Lysann Zander1, Gregory D. Webster2, Bettina Hannover1
1Division of School and Teaching Research, Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin, Germany
2Department of Psychology, University of Florida, Gainesville, USA
Received November 18th, 2013; revised December 16th, 2013; accepted January 5th, 2014
Copyright © 2014 Lysann Zander et al. This is an open access article distribu ted under the Creative Commons
Attribution License, which pe rmits unrestricted use, distribu tion, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
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Is the perception of academic performance among peers biased to the disadvantage of students with mi-
gration background (MB)? What role does friendship among peers play for the perception of perfor-
mance differences? In a quasi-experimental study, 9th graders with and without MB attending school in
Germany rated the performance of a comparison partner relative to their own performance after taking a
mathematics test. Degrees of correspondence between perceived and actual performance in intragroup
(both partners with or without MB) and intergroup (comparer or partner with migration background)
situations were tested in multilevel analyses. In both intragroup comparison situations, students evaluated
their partners’ performances benevolently. In contrast, in intergroup situations students with MB overes-
timated the performance of partners without MB relative to their own. Only students without MB judging
partners with MB showed no such positivity bias. The pattern was replicated in the sub sample of friends,
suggesting a subtle, yet powerful negative performance stereotype towards students with MB.
Keywords: Performance Evaluations; Students with Migration Background; Performance-Related
Stereotypes; Social Comparison
Imagine Murat, a student whose parents were born and raised
outside of the country where he is attending school, ask himself
the following questions: How well did I score on that math test?
How did my friend Petera native of that country do, better
or worse than me? Questions like these are typical in class-
rooms where students engage in social comparison with fellow
classmates to evaluate and improve their abilities (Dijkstra,
Kuyper, van der Werf, Buunk, & van der Zee, 2008). The an-
swers to these questions depend on the actual difference be-
tween Murat’s and Peter’s performance. If Murat scored higher
on the test than Peter, and both of them knew each other well,
Murat should expect to have outperformed Peter. But would
Previous research suggests that negative performance-related
stereotypes about minority group students hinder their acade-
mic success (Sinclair, Hardin, & Lowery, 2006; Steele, Spen-
cer, & Aronson, 2002; Taylor & Walton, 2011). Indeed, school
achievement studies have consistently replicated substantial
performance gaps between students with migration background
and their fellow students without migration background across
countries, but particularly in Germany (Park & Sandefur, 2010;
Stanat, Rauch, & Segeritz, 2010). Because performance esti-
mates have been found to shape students’ academic self-con-
cepts, which in turn have an impact on academic achievement
(Trautwein, Lüdtke, Roberts, Schnyder, & Niggli, 2009), un-
derstanding perceptions is the key. Social comparison among
peers is a powerful source of self- an d other-perception in edu-
cational settings (Dijkstra et al., 2008). No previous research,
however, has examined the extent of bias in peers’ perceptions
of each other’s performance.
We argue that perceptions of the academic performances
among peers are guided by a negative performance-related ste-
reotype towards students without migration background, possi-
bly even among friends. Such a stereotype about students with
migration background can impact students’ perceptions of their
own achievements and that of their classmates, particularly in
intergroup comparison where group membership is the most
salient (Brewer & Weber, 1994). By implication, differences
between own and the comparison partner’s performance can be
misjudged in intergroup comparison. Biased perceptions of
actually existing performance differences, in turn, can power-
fully shape academic interactions such as help-seeking and
collaborative work among peers—to the disadvantage of stu-
dents with migration background.
In laboratory research, friendship has been found to buffer
the detrimental effects of stereotypes on person perception
(Brewer, 1988).
In the present study we examine whether this also holds in a
naturalistic educ atio nal setting.
Perceiving Performance Differ ences
Individuals’ evaluations of their own and others’ perfor-
mances arise from social comparisons. In large-scale educa-
tional field studies, researchers have shown that the relatively
better performance of others entails decreased self-perceptions
and vice versa (e.g., Preckel & Brüll, 2010). Perceiving the
performance of others as better is comprised of a rating of one’s
own and the other’s performance (i.e., a self-other difference).
Previous field research has focused on self-ratings, implicitly
assuming that when comparing self with others, others’ per-
formances are perceived in an unbiased manner. Actual per-
formance of others is typically not assessed. Laboratory studies
classically focus either on the accuracy of self-ratings or the
accuracy of other ratings. In applied settings, however, bias
emerges in perceptions of performance differences which
rather than mere self or other ratings—ultimately guide social
interactions (Ridgeway, 2001), for instance when seeking for
better performing peers who can give academic advice.
The present study addresses these issues by having com-
parers est i mate their own performance and the performance of
their partners. To simulate a naturalistic situation, we let stu-
dents freely choose their comparison partners. Going beyond
previous research, we additionally measured the actual diffe-
rence by assessing comparers’ and partners’ performances with
a standardized test. Importantly, this allows mapping the full
range of naturally occurring (upwards and downwards) com-
parisons. Moreover, it enables us to identify patterns of bias in
students’ perceptions of performance differences by examining
the correspondence of perceived and actual performance dif-
Migration Background as Relevant Category
We argue that a socially shared stereotypeaccording to
which students with migration background perform more poor-
ly in academic domains than students without migration back-
ground—should bias students’ perceptions of performance dif-
ferences in the direction of the stereotype whenever one of the
two persons in the comparison situation is a member of that
stereotyped group.
In Germany, research on the contents of stereotypes regard-
ing students with migration background is scarce and outdated.
The few available studies attest to a negative sentiment of na-
tive Germans towards individuals with migration background
(Asbrock, 2010; Asbrock, Lemmer, Wagner, Becker, & Koller,
2009; Kahraman & Knoblich, 2000).
Additionally, the results of the well-known Programme for
International Student Assessment of the OECD (i.e., PISA
study) have been frequently communicated to the general pub-
lic by directly comparing the performance of students with and
without migration background (Stanat & Christensen, 2006).
Therefore, in a performance situation in the classroom the
category with/without migration background should be con-
textually meaningful and task-relevant (Quinn & Macrae, 2005).
Accordingly, the related stereotype of minority students as un-
derachievers is applicable in performance comparisons among
Intergroup and Intragroup Comparison
Stereotypes have been shown to guide information process-
ing by serving as cues that allow for making judgments when-
ever they are potentially applicable (Bodenhausen & Macrae,
1998). Whether they are activated, however, depends on whe-
ther the category is salient in the comparison (Mummendey,
Klink, & Brown, 2001). If both comparison partners share
membership in the category (intragroup comparison) the ste-
reotype associated with the category is of little predictive value
in the comparison of performance; comparison partners are
more likely to draw back on individuating information. If com-
parison partners do not share membership in the category (in-
tergroup comparison) stereotypic knowledge that substantiates
differences between individuals will most likely be used (Fiske
& Neuberg, 1990; Mussweiler & Bodenhausen, 2002).
Thus, the impact of stereotypes about students with migra-
tion background should be potentially low in intragroup com-
parison but high in intergroup comparison. Importantly, the
negative performance-related stereotype about students with
migration background implies opposite predictions for inter-
group comparisons: comparers with migration background
should perceive actually existing performance differences posi-
tively biased in favor of their comparison partners without mi-
gration background. Comparers without migration back-
ground on the other hand should perceive actually existing per-
formance differences negatively biased to the disadvantage of
their comparison partners with migration background. In con-
trast, in intragroup comparisons the negative stereotype about
students with migration background should be irrelevant such
that performance difference perceptions should adequately re-
flect actual differences, irrespective of whether both partners
have a migration background or both partners have no migra-
tion background.
Stereotypic Percept ion s amo ng Friends
According to recent research in educational settings students
prefer to compare their performance to those of friends (e.g.,
Lubbers, Kuyper, & van der Werft, 2009). Laboratory research
indicates that stereotypes bring about their strongest effects
when the relationship between perceiver and target is not char-
acterized by a strong interpersonal orientation (dual-process
model; Brewer, 1988).
Thus, it needs to be examined whether a positive interper-
sonal relationship between student and comparison partner can
“buffer” the impact of a negative performance-related stereo-
type. We expect friendship between comparer and partner to
attenuate—but not eliminate—the impact of the stereotype such
that the social category “student with migration background”
should also be relevant if the intergroup comparison partners
are friends.
The Present Study
Using a large-scale sample, we tested two hypotheses. Our
first hypothesis predicts that the degree to which perceived
performance differences match the actual performance diffe-
rences (as indicated by test scores) should vary depending on
whether comparison partners share (intragroup comparison) or
do not share (intergroup comparison) group membership.
The second hypothesis pertaining to the two intergroup
comparison situations reads that a negative performance-related
stereotype towards students with migration background should
produce an asymmetric pattern depending on whether the com-
parer has 1) a migration background and thus compares to a
member of the supposedly superior group or 2) does not have a
migration background and thus compares to a member of the
supposedly inferior group. In the first situation, comparers with
migration background should perceive actually existing perfor-
mance differences in favor of their comparison partners without
migration background. In the second situation, comparers with-
out migration background should perceive actually existing per-
formance differences to the disadvantage of their immigrant
comparison partners. We further examine whether our hypo-
theses apply if the comparison partners are friends.
Parti cipa nt s
Participants were 831 9th graders in 39 classrooms in Ger-
many. Of the 39 classrooms, 29 (n = 662 students, 80%) were
higher-level tr ack (Gymnasium) and 1 0 (n = 169 students, 20%)
were lowe r -level track (Realschule and Hauptschule). Students’
mean age was 15.45 years (SD = 0.81), 55.7% were female. Of
the 807 students who provided information on migration back-
ground, 272 (33.7%) reported themselves or at least one parent
as being born outside of Germany and were categorized as
“having a migration background”. Countries of origin for both
students and parents were heterogeneous (N > 60), although
students with Turkish (≈20%) and Polish (≈ 13%) backgrounds
were the dominant groups. Study participation was voluntary
but encouraged by a lottery in which participating students
could win prizes (e.g., iPod).
Questionnaires were administered by teachers or research as-
sistants during regular school hours. Before starting to take the
test students were asked to first choose a comparison partner
whom they would like to compare their performance to after
taking the test. To simulate a realistic situation, students were
not given any further instructions on who this comparison
partner should be. Cover names were provided for every stu-
dent it the classroom so that anonymity was guaranteed while
partner information could be matched. Out of 831 students, 43
(5.2%) did not choose a comparison partner. Students then
completed a standardized performance tests on mathematics
(the first part of the survey). After working on the test for 15
minutes, they were prompted to stop working on the test and to
estimate how well both they and their comparison partner had
performed. To verify that students in fact referred to the previ-
ously indicated partner they were instructed to write down the
cover name again. Finally, students were asked to indicate
whether they were friends with their partner and to provide
demographic and family background information.
Measures and Materials
Actual Performance Difference
We developed a performance test of 20 items from the
Third International Mathematics and Science Study” (TIMSS)
item pool (Baumert et al., 1999). Reliability was satisfactory (α
= .72). To determine the actual comparison direction partici-
pants’ actual test scores were matched with the actual test
scores of the chosen comparison partner.
Perceived Performance Difference
After taking the test, students were instructed to evaluate
their own test performance, and right below, to estimate their
partner’s test performance on a continuous line, ranging from 0
mm = “rather poor” to 60 millimeters = “rather good”. To ob-
tain the perceived performance difference between self and
comparison partner self-evaluation scores were subtracted from
other-evaluation scores. We refrained from asking students to
explicitly and verbally indicate whether they thought their
partner had performed worse or better than they had on the test
to prevent social desirability effects. To prevent priming of
category membership and minimize effects of stereotype threat
(Stricker & Ward, 2004), migration background (MB) of par-
ticipant and partner were obtained indirectly using the cover
names and the socio-demographic information provided at the
survey’s end.
Data and Analysis
Because our classroom data were hierarchical, with indi-
vidual students (level 1) nested within classrooms (level 2), we
used multilevel modeling (MLM; Nezlek, 2008, 2011) via
HLM 6 (Raudenbush, Bryk, Cheong, & Congdon, 2004). Mi-
gration background was coded: 0.5 = no migration back-
ground (No-MB), +0.5 = migration background (MB).
Preliminary Analyses
In a first step, we analyzed students’ comparison choices
with regards to frequency of intra-versus intergroup choices
(migration background and gender), comparison direction (up-
wards, downwards, lateral comparison), and friendship between
comparison partners. Out of the 746 students who made a valid
comparison choice, 345 who had no migration background
chose a comparison partner who also had no migration back-
ground (48.9%, No-MB → No-MB), 131 students had no mi-
gration background and chose a comparison partner with mi-
gration background (18.6%, No-MB → MB), 129 students with
migration background chose a comparison partner without mi-
gration background (18.3%, MB → No-MB), and 101 students
who had a migration background chose a comparison partner
who also had a migration background (14.3%, MB → MB).
The majority of dyads were same-sex (88.8%). Most students
(702 out of 746, 94.1%) chose a friend as comparison partner.
Across the four possible MB combinations, students were
equally likely to choose friends as comparison partners, χ2(3) =
4.65, ns. On average, students chose a similar performing com-
parison partner (M = 1.17, SD = 16.37), which is consistent
with previous findings of social comparison studies conducted
in the educational settings (cf., Dijkstra et al., 2008).
In the second analysis we examined whether the actual per-
formance differences between comparer and comparison part-
ner were equally distributed across the four comparison situa-
tions. For the subsequent analyses, raw test scores (M = 14.02,
SD = 3.92) were summed and transformed into percentages (M
= 64.01%, SD = 17.52%). To determine actual performance
differences, participants’ test scores were subtracted from their
partner’s test score so that positive scores reflected a better
performance of the comparison partner relative to the partici-
pant. The distribution of this performance difference score was
approximately normal, with the majority of students choosing a
partner who performed similarly on the test (range: 59.1% to
54.6%; M = 1.17, SD = 16.37, t(736) = 1.93, p = .054). Next,
we conducted an omnibus ANOVA, showing no differences
among the four conditions, F(3,702) = 0.14, p > .94, partial η2
= .001.
To obtain our criterion variable—the perceived difference
between own and the partners’ performancecomparers’ raw
rating sc ores wer e transf ormed into pe rcentage s, rangi ng from
0% to 100% for evaluation of own (M = 65. 79%, SD = 21.72%)
and partners’ performance (M = 70.51%, SD = 20.48%).
On average, students evaluated their partners’ performance
more positively than their own, t(726) = 6.24, p < .001, d =
0.46. Evaluations of own and other’s performance were posi-
tively correlated, r = .53, p < .001. To obtain the perceived per-
formance difference between self and comparison partner (cri-
terion variable), participants’ evaluation of their own perform-
ance was subtracted from their evaluation of their chosen com-
parison partner’s performance. Positive scores indicated that the
participant evaluated the performance of the comparison part-
ner to be better than his or her own performance, and negative
values indicated that the participant evaluated the performance
of the comparison to be worse than his or her own performance.
Students judged their partner’s performance as slightly better
than their own (range: 100 to 91.67; M = 4.76, SD = 20.55).
Differences in evaluation were available for 728 out of the 746
students (97.45%) who had made a valid comparison choice.
Following the procedures described by McClelland (2000;
Judd, McClelland, & Ryan, 2009), we inspected whether the
models’ residual errors were normally distributed; they were.
Main Analyses
To test our hypotheses, following the procedures for deco-
mposing interactions (Aiken & West, 1991), we examined the
four slopes representing the covariation (or “correspondence”)
between actual performance differences and perceived per-
formance differences in conditions where 1) the comparison
partner had a migration background or not (Figure 1, lower vs.
upper panel) and 2) the comparer had a migration background
or not (Figure 1, dashed vs. solid line).
The model included two dichotomous predictors: migration
backgrounds of comparer and comparison partner, with lower
or higher numbers (0.5 vs. +0.5) representing students without
or with migration background, respectively. Actual difference
in performance between comparer and chosen comparison
partner was entered uncentered into the model because zero is a
meaningful value (indicating no difference). Slopes and inter-
cepts were allowed to vary randomly for each level-2 unit
The predicted three-way interaction was significant, γ70 =
0.47, t(37) = -2.14, p = .039, d = 0.70 (F igure 1). The inter-
cept was positive with a value of about 5%, γ00 = 4.98, t(37) =
5.58, p < .001, d = 1.8 3 , indicating that, across conditions,
comparers expected their comparison partner’s performance to
be about 5% better than their own.
Hypothesis 1 states that the covariance between actual and
perceived performance difference should vary depending on
whether comparison partners share (intragroup comparison) or
do not share (intergroup comparison) group membership be-
cause in intergroup comparison situationsbut not in in-
tragroup comparison situations—accessible stereotypes should
shape participants’ perceptions. To examine this prediction, we
Figure 1.
Three-way interaction of actual performance difference (other minus
own), migration background of participant, and comparison partner in
predicting in perceived performance difference (other minus own).
first decomposed the significant three-way interaction to com-
pare intra- and intergroup comparisons (Aiken & West, 1991).
Confirming our predictions, there was a significant two-way
interaction for intergroup comparisons (γ30 = 0.31, t(37) =
2.24, p = .031, d = 0.74; Figure 1, top panel dashed line vs.
bottom panel solid line), but none for intragroup comparisons
(γ30 = 0.11, t(37) = 0.59, p = .56, d = 0.19; Figure 1, top
panel solid line vs. bottom panel dashed line). Thus, the com-
parers’ perception of differences varied depending on whether
they belonged to the supposedly inferior or superior group in
the intergroup—but not intragroup— comparison situations.
We also tested the simple effects of migration background in
the intragroup comparison. That is, given Figure 1, we tested
for differences in evaluation differences (y-axis) between the
solid line in the top panel and the dashed line in the bottom
panel at 1, 0, and +1 SDs from the mean actual performance
difference (x-axis; Aiken & West, 1991). Consistent with our
predictions, there were no significant differences between the
two intragroup types (MB → MB vs. No-MB → No-MB) re-
gardless of whether the partner performed actually lower (1
SD: γ10 = 3.10, t(37) = 0.99, p = .327, d = 0.33), at an equal
level (at the mean: γ10 = 1.42, t(37) = 0.81, p = .425, d = 0.27),
or better (+1 SD: γ10 = 0.37, t(37) = 0.10, p = .925, d =
0.03). Thus, perceptions of comparers with and without mi-
gration background were similar when comparisons were in-
The second hypothesis states that in intergroup comparison
situations, a negative performance-related stereotype towards
students with migration background should produce an asym-
metric pattern depending on whether the comparer a) had a
migration background and thus compared his or her perform-
ance to a member of the supposedly superior group (MB →
No-MB) or b) did not have a migration background and thus
compared his or her performance to a member of the suppos-
edly inferior group (No-MB → MB). Therefore, comparers
with migration background should perceive actual performance
differences as positively biased in favor of their comparison
partners without migration background. Comparers without
migration background should perceive actual performance dif-
ferences as negatively biased to the disadvantage of their com-
parison partners with migration background. This prediction
was examined via simple effects tests of migration background
in the intergroup comparison situations (Aiken & West, 1991;
Figure 1, top panel dashed line vs. bottom panel solid line,
respectively) in which we can examine where and in what way
comparers’ perceptions in the two intergroup comparison situa-
tions differed from each other. Confirming our predictions, the
difference between comparers’ perceptions in the two inter-
group comparison situations were significant when students
compared to a lower-performing partner (1 SD: γ10 = 13.34,
t(37) = 3.87, p = .001, d = 1.27), and when students com-
pared to an equally-well-performing partner (at the mean: γ10 =
8.28, t(37) = 3.41, p = .002, d = 1.12); both of these sig-
nificant differences were in the expected direction. Only when
the partner performed actually better was there no difference
between the two intergroup comparison situations (+1 SD: ns.).
In Hypothesis 2 we also predicted that comparers with mi-
gration background would overestimate their partners’ per-
formance relative to their own (Figure 1, top panel dashed line)
and comparers without migration background would underesti-
mate their partners’ performance relative to their own (Figure 1,
bottom panel solid line). To examine this prediction, we tested
the slopes representing the two different intergroup comparison
situations at the two specific points for which the previous
analyses had revealed a significant difference for the two inter-
group comparison situations (Aiken & West, 1991): where the
partner performed markedly lower (1 SD) and equally well (at
the mean). Consistent with our predictions, perceptions of stu-
dents in the second situation (MB → No-MB) were positively
distorted: students with migration background overestimated
the performance of their partners without migration background
and expected actually-lower-performing partners to perform at
least as well, even slightly better than them (medium effect size,
ns). This was indicated by the positive value of the intercept of
the respective slope at 1 SD, γ00 = 3.62, t(37) = 1.42, p = .16, d
= 0.47. At the same time, students without migration back-
ground expected actually lower-performing immigrants to per-
form markedly lower (≈ 10%) than themselves, γ00 = 9.71,
t(37) = 4.46, p < .001, d = 1.47. This was the only one of the
four comparison situations in which the lower performance of
the partner was expected and indicated by the comparer.
Next, we examined the situation in which the partner per-
formed equally well. Again, students with migration back-
ground overestimated the performance of their partners without
migration background and expected equally-performing part-
ners to outperform them. This was indicated by a positive, sig-
nificant intercept of the slope at the mean difference, γ00 = 9.19,
t(37) = 4.44, p < .001, d = 1.46. The expectations of students
without migration background, in contrast, were accurate, γ00 =
0.91, t(37) = 0.67, p = .51, d = 0.22. The direction of the
asymmetry—the difference between the two intergroup com-
parison situations—was consistent with the stereotype that
students without migration background perform poorly. Repli-
cating the analysis of the three-way interaction using the sub-
sample of only those participants who had indicated they were
friends with the comparison partner they chose (N = 695, 39
classrooms; M = 17.82 students per classroom, SD = 6.24) we
found that the critical three-way interaction remained signifi-
cant, γ70 = 0.53, t(37) = 2.38, p = .023, d = 0.78.
Discussion and Conclusions
In this study we examined perceptions of performance dif-
ferences in classrooms in Germany. We tested the claims that
the social category migration background is known, salient,
and socially meaningful to adolescent students when making
social comparisons of academic performances and that students’
perceptions are shaped by a negative performance-related
stereotype pertaining to students with migration background.
Going beyond previous research, we simultaneously considered
1) the actual existing performance difference between com-
parison partners as it naturally occurred, 2) whet her t hey shar ed
or did not share having a migration background, and 3) being
friends or not. Because all students completed a standardized
mathematics test, we were able to examine the extent to which
comparers’ perceptions reflected actual performance differ-
ences between themselves and their chosen comparison partner.
Findings confirmed our predictions of the impact of shared
(vs. unshared) social group membership on how students per-
ceive differences in their own performance and that of class-
mates. Findings also confirmed our predictions of an asymmet-
rical pattern in two intergroup comparison situations: to the
advantage of students who did not have a migration background
and to the disadvantage of students with migration background,
consistent in the direction of a negative stereotype towards
students with migration background.
We found the strongest stereotype-consistent bias among
students with migration background who actually outperformed
their partners without migration background but expected them
to perform equally well and even better then themselves. In
contrast, students without migration background who outper-
formed their partners with migration background accurately
perceived their partners’ performance to be lower.
In addition, the perceptual pattern was replicated in the sub-
sample of only those students who reported being friends with
the comparison partner they had chosen.
The “Pal Effect”—Not for Minority Friends of
Majority Students
While people self-enhance on average (Alicke & Sedikides,
2010), we found benevolent ratings of partners’ competence in
all but one experimental condition; in the situation in which
students without migration background compared themselves to
students with migration background, students’ ratings were in
favor of their partners rather than to their own advantage.
Two aspects of this finding are worth discussing. The first is
the benevolence of students’ ratings of their comparison part-
ners’ performance, which we call the “pal effect”. For inst ance,
in situations where the comparison partner actually performed
lower than the participant, participants expected their partners
to perform at least as well as themselves. Considering several
lines of research on perceptions of friends and close others, our
finding are unsurprising. Consistent with other research (Lub-
bers et al., 2009), most students picked friends as their com-
parison partners, most likely resulting in similarity testing
(Mussweiler & Rüter, 2003). In this case, comparers will gen-
erate information that is most likely to confirm a focal hypothe-
sis of similarity (to the comparison target), given a quick, holis-
tic assessment of the similarity of comparer and the comparison
partner’s (cf., Mussweiler, Epstude, & Rüter, 2005) indicated
similarity. This could explain why students were so optimistic
about the performance of comparison partners who actually
performed worse than themselves. Thus, perceivers strongly
attenuated the actually existing downward performance gap.
This finding is also consistent with the extended model of
self-evaluation maintenance (Beach & Tesser, 1993), which
explains affective reactions to performance differences in close
relationships. According to this model, partners respond sympa-
thetically to each other and regulate comparison outcomes in
such a manner that (anticipated) negative emotional reactions
for both self and partner are avoided in the first place. The pre-
sent research suggests that stating one’s superior performance
and indicating clear performance differences to the disadvan-
tage of their comparison partner is avoided and rather evokes
negative emotions, at least in three of the four conditions.
Nevertheless, participants’ ratings were also benevolent inso-
far as in situations where comparison partners performed simi-
larly, participants expected their partners to outperform them-
selves. The tendency to rate close acquaintances even more
positively than oneself (i.e., “pal enhancement) as a strategy
for relationship maintenance has been shown in recent research
studying self and other attractiveness ratings (Swami, Stieger,
Haubner, Voracek, & Furnham, 2009; Barelds & Dijkstra,
2009). This finding stands in apparent contrast to the recent
studies showing a “better than average effect” (BTA) in educa-
tional settings. The BTA effect indicates that most students
often believe they are superior to their classmates at school-
related tasks. The BTA effect is especially pronounced among
ethnic minority students (Kuyper, Dijkstra, Buunk, & van der
Werf, 2011). Yet in BTA studies, students are asked to rate
whether they were more or less athletic, or more or less attrac-
tive than most of their classmates. This constitutes a very dif-
ferent frame of reference than the one applied in the present
study, where students choose specific comparison others and,
mostly, friends. The general formulation of BTA items leaves
more room for self-enhancement than the task of comparing
one’s own performance to that of a self-selected target directly
in a concrete testing situation.
The second aspect relates to the exclusiveness of the pal-
enhancement effect. The effect was shown in all comparison
situations but one: it did not hold in intergroup comparison
situations in which majority students without migration back-
ground compared their performance to those of their partners
with migration background. Here the perception of differences
was not positively or negatively biased but, in fact, more accu-
rate than in the other conditions: when minority students per-
formed lower, majority students expected them to perform
lower; when minority students performed similar, majority
students expected them to perform similar. Thus, ratings in this
condition were more accurate. Ironically, it is the accuracy of
those ratings, the lack of optimism and overestimation regard-
ing the performance of comparison partners with migration
background that constitutes the subtle but powerful disadvan-
tage in their peer groups, even among friends.
To our knowledge, the current research provides the first
empirical evidence for pal-enhancement in students’ compe-
tence ratings in classrooms. Future studies may wish to con-
sider systematically disentangling the underlying mechanisms.
One important limitation of our study is that gender as an
additional factor was not included in the analyses. While gender
has been included as an independent variable in more recent
analyses, interactions as well as social comparisons are strongly
gender segregated (Mehta & Strough, 2010; Dijkstra et al.,
2008). As such, comparison partners mostly share their mem-
bership in this social category and migration background
should be more relevant. Additionally, from a methodological
standpoint, a stable model that additionally included both the
sex of comparer and partner could not be reliably estimated
given that only a fraction of students chose comparison partners
of the opposite sex. Another important limitation is that, based
on the present data, we can only infer rather than directly dem-
onstrate the impact of performance-related stereotypes. Clearly,
more research is necessary to directly examine the mechanism
suggested here. At present, we cannot think of any equally
powerful explanation for this pattern of results.
Taken together, the findings of our quasi-experimental study
offer an explanation for how performance perceptions among
peers can impede the academic development of students with
migration background. Overall, the observed pattern of percep-
tual asymmetry implies that relatively lower expectations re-
garding the performance of students with migration background
are held by the members of both groups: students with and
without migration background. Benevolent expectations to-
wards the comparison partners characterize the ratings of all
students except in one situation: no pal enhancement was found
when students without migration background rated their own
performance in comparison to students with migration back-
ground. The disadvantage lies within the lack of benevolence
and optimism regarding the abilities of students with migration
background: importantly, in their own perception as well.
Relatively lower expectations regarding the academic per-
formance of minority students, particularly in intergroup con-
stellations, will likely feedback into minority students’ self-
concepts of ability. These, in turn, have been shown to strongly
impact actual performances and academic development (Traut-
wein et al., 2009). Moreover, lower expectations held by both
minority and majority peers may subtly impact academic inter-
actions among peers such as the exchange of school-related
help. The perceptual asymmetry may result in students with
migration background choosing less competent partners than
their classmates without migration background in cooperative
tasks (Zander, Hannover, & Webster, in prep.). If students with
a migration background doubt their capabilities relative to their
cooperation partners without migration background, then they
are more li kely to be less active and more insecure in their con-
tributions, even when these cooperation partners are their
friends (Cohen & Lotan, 1995).
In this vein, a lowered self-concept of ability, together with
disadvantages in social interactions, could jointly serve as self-
fulfilling prophecies (Guyll, Madon, Prieto, & Scherr, 2010),
thus hindering the academic development of students with mi-
gration background in a subtle way: their behaviors may con-
firm initial, erroneous expectations and thus further alter self-
and partner perceptions consistent with the initial expectations
or hypotheses. Our findings suggest that these processes apply
to intergroup but not intragroup situations, where comparison
others are rated benevolently irrespective of their migration
To our knowledge, this is the first study to examine the im-
pact of shared social category membership on comparison out-
comes tested in an applied naturalistic setting, by taking into
account actual and perceived relative performance differences
between comparers and comparison partners. Despite the vital
importance of peers in adolescent research, their role has not
yet been taken into account to identify paths to explain dis-
advantages in the academic development of students with mi-
gration background. The present research suggests that both
friendship and having a migration background shape students’
perception of performance differences.
Yet, the unique and interactive contribution of these factors
to the perception of ability differences should be investigated
systematically. In fact, the present findings evoke important
questions for future research: Is it the migration background per
se that suggests superiority and inferiority of self and others in
the test situations? Migration background is a category that
oversimplifies the diversity of persons within it. Yet, so does
the category gender. Broad categorizations serve as an impor-
tant starting point, particularly in applied settings. Future re-
search should explore the boundaries of the category and its
predictive power for stereotypic patterns. Comparing students
of different ethnic groups is just one possible approach. What
role does it play whether students with migration background
hold a passport of the host country? Or their length of stay? Or
whether they went to a kindergarten in the country where they
now attend school? What role does it play how immigrant stu-
dents’ think their ethnic group is being perceived by members
of the host country? The present research suggests that migra-
tion background is a diverse but powerful category for students
in naturalistic classroom settings, yet it is just a beginning.
Interestingly, we also found the stereotypical perceptual pat-
tern in the subsample of only those students who reported being
friends with the comparison partner they had chosen. Friend-
ship among participants could not buffer the effects of a nega-
tive performance-related stereotype. One reason for this finding
could be that students were asked to indicate whether they were
friends with the comparison partner after they had compared
their scores. Recent research suggests that changing the order
would entail a different pattern of results. Walton, Paunesku
and Dweck (2012) report that the detrimental effect of a
stereotype on participants’ performance could be buffered by
priming them with own (or even other persons’) friends and
family. Similarly, students’ perception of own and others’ abili-
ties could be less stereotypic if they were asked to think about
their friendship to a comparison partner before comparing their
performances. Our results, however, suggest that in natural
comparison situations—unless asked to do so—students do not
draw back on this valuable resource to countervail the negative
impact o f a stereotype .
Although our findings remain tentative and require replica-
tion (including the systematic variation of forced and deliberate
comparison choice to extend the generalizability of these re-
sults), they may serve as an explanation for the prevalent un-
derachievement of students with migration background that has
not previously been investigated in a real-world setting.
Additionally, they suggest that “having a migration back-
ground” is known, salient, and socially meaningful to students
when making their comparisons and imply the existence of a
stereotypic belief that students with migration are academic
We are convinced that by virtue of future research on the
topic, and the comparison of patterns across countries, we may
open up a further route to improve opportunities for the positive
academic development of students who have a migration back-
Acknowledgemen ts
This research was supported by a research grant from
Volkswagen Stiftung, Funding initiative: Societal and Cultural
ChallengesStudy Groups to Migration and Integration, file
reference: II/80 639, allocated to Bettina Hannover (Freie Uni-
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