It isn’t groundbreaking news, but it needs to be repeated: "Perfection, by definition, is an impossible goal.” The quote is credited to social psychologist Thomas Curran, Ph.D., of Britain’s University of Bath in the Department for Health, as it relates to his most recent research on the topic.
What is groundbreaking is the work Curran led with study co-author Andrew Hill, Ph.D., of York St. John University in England into an examination of group generational differences in perfectionism. Study findings were published recently by the American Psychological Association (APA). Together, the two scientists explained that the quest for perfection involves “an irrational desire to achieve along with being overly critical of oneself and others”.
Focusing more specifically on students in post-secondary studies, their research shows the pursuit of perfection “in body, mind and career among today’s college students has significantly increased compared with prior generations, which may be taking a toll on young people’s mental health”.
Curran and Hill used an existing “model of multidimensional perfectionism” created in 1991 by scientists P.L. Hewitt and G.L. Flett. The model measures three kinds of perfectionistic traits: self-oriented perfectionism [i.e., the irrational need to be perfect]; other-oriented perfectionism [putting unrealistic expectancies on others]; and socially prescribed perfectionisms [the perception of excessive expectations from others].
Using the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale, the two collected and analyzed data from 41,641 American, Canadian and British post-secondary students from 164 samples. The scale tested for generational changes in perfectionism from the late 1980s to 2016.
Results from the study were published in the APA journal Psychological Bulletin and showed that “more recent generations of college students reported significantly higher scores for each form of perfectionism than earlier generations”.
Data showed that between the years 1989 and 2016, the scores in “self-oriented perfectionism” increased by 10 percent. Similarly, examining the same period of time, the scores for “socially prescribed perfectionism” and “other-oriented perfectionism” increased by 33 percent and 16 percent, respectively.
According to Curran, results from the Millennial group (APA defines Millennial as ages 18–33)] demonstrated an escalated drive for perfectionism. And he believes a handful of factors are to blame.
In his article for CNN.com, writer Ben Tinker described perfectionism as an “idiosyncratic trait” and explained Curran’s perception of its recent explosion. “He says it's not just the result of parents pushing their children harder than ever before but rather a larger shift in ideology at a societal level,” Tinker wrote.
"Perfectionists have a lot of baggage that other people don't,” Tinker quoted Curran. "For a perfectionist, failure is catastrophic. It's catastrophic for their sense of self, and it's catastrophic for their emotional well-being."
Curran reported that in 1976, roughly one half of high school seniors believed they would earn a post-secondary degree. By 2008, he said, the percentage had increased to more than 80 percent believing they would complete a degree. “Yet, numbers of those earning degrees has failed to keep pace with rising expectations,” Curran explained. “The gap between the percentage of high school seniors expecting to earn a college degree and those with one doubled between 1976 and 2000 and has continued to rise.”
Examining his data further, Curran wrote that an increased desire among post-secondary students to “perfect their grade point averages” and their tendencies to “compare them to their peers” is a clear example of “a rise in meritocracy among millennials, in which universities encourage competition among students to move up the social and economic ladder,” he said.
Curran reported that data collected from these young respondents showed they possess alarmingly “unrealistic educational and professional expectations for themselves”, resulting in such a rise in the desire for perfectionism. “Meritocracy places a strong need for young people to strive, perform and achieve in modern life,” said Curran.
Based on the study’s findings, Curran believes more “recent generations of college students have higher expectations of themselves and others than previous generations”. Pressures from current society are causing “today’s young people [to be] . . . competing with each other in order . . . to succeed and they feel that perfectionism is necessary in order to feel safe, socially connected and of worth,” he added.
In addition to the pressures to secure a good education and professional pressures to earn a high income, Curran’s results did not omit the effect of social media on young adults and the unparalleled expectations it causes “to perfect themselves in comparison to others, which makes them dissatisfied with their bodies and increases social isolation,” he wrote.
The study’s co-author, Andrew Hill recognized that with higher recorded numbers of young people reporting depression, suicidal thoughts, and anxiety, the escalating perfectionistic tendencies in the millennial group indicate “perfectionism may in part be affecting the psychological health of students.”
Hill hopes the current climate in educational settings that encourages such competition among young people will be examined and “curbed” in an attempt “to preserve [their] good mental health”.
In his CNN article, Tinker quoted Curran’s nod to the reality of change: "Well, it's difficult," Curran said. "You cannot change culture overnight." But "there is a kind of counterculture occurring across the West," he said. "Young people are beginning to recognize that, potentially, this structure is not necessarily serving their needs."
Tinker said Curran's advice is: “don't be afraid to fail. And, when--not if--you do, don't think of failure as catastrophic.”
American Psychological Association. (January 2, 2018). Perfectionism Among Young People Significantly Increased Since 1980s, Study Finds. http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2018/01/perfectionism-young-people.aspx
Curran, T., Ph.D., & Hill, A., Ph.D., (December 28, 2018). APA: Psychological Bulletin. Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time: A Meta-Analysis of Birth Cohort Differences From 1989 to 2016 https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/bul-bul0000138.pdf
NewsMedical.net. (January 4, 2018). Study finds significant increase in perfectionism among young people since the 1980s. https://www.news-medical.net/news/20180104/Study-finds-significant-increase-in-perfectionism-among-young-people-since-the-1980s.aspx
Tinker, B., (January 9, 2018). CNN. The modern problem with pursuing perfection. https://www.cnn.com/2018/01/09/health/perfection-mental-health-study-intl/index.html