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Psychol Sci. 2016 Mar;27(3):365-74. doi: 10.1177/0956797615623770. Epub 2016 Jan 29.

Discouraged by Peer Excellence: Exposure to Exemplary Peer Performance Causes Quitting.

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Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard University
Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley.


People are exposed to exemplary peer performances often (and sometimes by design in interventions). In two studies, we showed that exposure to exemplary peer performances can undermine motivation and success by causing people to perceive that they cannot attain their peers' high levels of performance. It also causes de-identification with the relevant domain. We examined such discouragement by peer excellence by exploiting the incidental exposure to peers' abilities that occurs when students are asked to assess each other's work. Study 1 was a natural experiment in a massive open online course that employed peer assessment (N = 5,740). Exposure to exemplary peer performances caused a large proportion of students to quit the course. Study 2 explored underlying psychological mechanisms in an online replication (N = 361). Discouragement by peer excellence has theoretical implications for work on social judgment, social comparison, and reference bias and has practical implications for interventions that induce social comparisons.


educational psychology; judgment; open data; open materials; social cognition; social influences

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