That classmate who always knew the answer to whatever question the teacher sprung on everyone may be even more worse than you secretly thought: They might have inadvertently motivated you into becoming a worse student yourself. At least, so suggests a recent study published in Psychological Science.

The authors, Todd Rogers, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, and Avi Feller, assistant professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, studied how people responded when encountered by examples of “exemplary peer performance,” both in the real world and in a more controlled setting. In the former scenario, which involved college students enrolled in an Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), the duo found people who evaluated excellent essays were more likely to drop out afterwards than those who simply looked over the work of average peers. Their subsequent online recreation of the natural experiment came to the same conclusion.

“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,” the authors wrote.

In the first study, the two looked at the 5,740 MOOC students who completed their course’s one writing assignment and also graded the essays of at least three other students — both requirements for a passing grade in the class. As luck would have it, these peer essays were randomly assigned, with the average score of all essays assessed being 7.5 out of 9. They then tabulated the average score the reviewer gave their assigned essays and created a measurement of “essay-portfolio quality”. Ultimately, only two-thirds (3,857) ended up passing the course, but those with an exceptional essay-portfolio quality were significantly less likely to do so than those with an average one.

More specifically, 68 percent of students with an average essay-portfolio quality passed the class, compared with 64 percent of students who had an essay-portfolio quality one standard deviation above the mean and 45 percent of students who boasted the top 100 essay-portfolio quality scores.

“To put this effect size in context, consider that 93% of students who wrote a ‘perfect’ essay earned a certificate, whereas 75% of students who wrote an essay that was at the mean earned a certificate,” the authors explained. “Therefore, assessing the highest-quality essays (relative to assessing average essays) had as great an effect (or greater) on the rate of earning a certificate as did writing the highest-quality essays (relative to writing an average essay): −23 percentage points vs. 18 percentage points.”

They then replicated the set-up, using 361 volunteers recruited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. All the volunteers first wrote a short essay (at least 100 words) responding to a SAT sample question. Afterwards, half reviewed two objectively poor essays responding to the same question, while the other half reviewed two excellent ones. They were then asked if they felt they could produce an essay as good as the ones they saw.

Not only did people who read excellent essays feel less confident about their writing ability, they also felt less motivated to produce a second essay to another question for more compensation. They were also less likely to consider their ability to write a good essay as important to their self-value. This effect didn't appear to be affected by a person's actual writing ability.

Interestingly enough, people who reviewed poor essays in either study experienced no boost to their performance or confidence.

The authors speculate that constant exposure to someone’s over-the-top excellence in an subject area might shortcircuit people’s natural inclination to emulate their peers whenever possible. In other words, when we think the average is unattainable, we become less willing to invest ourselves further, in order to protect our self-image.

If they're right, that might have big implications for how we motivate people, not only academically but elsewhere as well.

“Employee-of-the-year awards may create explicit incentives to perform well, but they are unlikely to shift people’s perceptions of their typical peers’ abilities very much. After all, employees of the year are celebrated exactly because they are excellent. Other times, though, peers’ excellent performances are highlighted in more subtle ways. Consider managers offhandedly mentioning specific outstanding behaviors by specific employees during team meetings,” the pair wrote. “We predict that the more subtle these appeals, the more likely they will be to shift perceptions of peers’ abilities and, consequently, the more likely they will be to induce discouragement by peer excellence.”

As for how to remedy it? The authors suggest that employers “might neutralize discouragement by peer excellence in these situations by noting how unusually excellent the praised performances are.This may preserve people’s motivation for future public praise without inducing disengagement.”

Source: Rogers T, Feller A. Discouraged by Peer Excellence: Exposure to Exemplary Peer Performance Causes Quitting. Psychological Science. 2016.