Just in time for the rush of aspiration that comes with a new calendar year, the American Psychological Association has published new research exploring the rise of perfectionism in young people. Compared to prior generations, today’s college students are harder on themselves, more demanding of others, and report higher levels of social pressure to be perfect.
Published in the journal Psychological Bulletin, the study examines responses to the Multidimensional Perfection Scale from over 40,000 college students who took the survey between 1989 and 2016. It is a test used to assess generational changes in three types of perfectionism. The results showed increases across all three: a 10 percent increase in self-directed perfectionism, a 33 percent increase in socially prescribed perfectionism (that is, high standards dictated by the expectations of others) and a 16 percent increase in other-oriented perfectionism (perfectionistic standards that are applied to other people).
We tend to talk about “perfectionism” as if it’s a secret strength; it’s the clichéd answer to that clichéd job interview question, “What’s your greatest weakness?” Some psychologists do indeed believe that there is such a thing as healthy perfectionism, the kind of intense, internal drive that can lead to high achievement. And yet there is obvious risk to feeling trapped in an endless cycle of unreachable expectations and overly critical self-evaluation. Tying one’s sense of self-worth to achievement can make a person unable to hold on to the sense of satisfaction that comes with success, and has been associated with clinical depression, anorexia, and early death.
But researchers argue that perfectionism is most damaging when those high expectations feel like they’re being set by someone else. The researchers call this particular flavor of unmanageable standards “socially prescribed perfectionism,” meaning that a person perceives the expectations of others to be excessive and uncontrollable; the need for perfection appears to be imposed externally, rather than internally. It’s associated with major psychopathology, like anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation.
Why the increase in perfectionism? According to one of the study authors — Thomas Curran, Ph.D., of the University of Bath — raw data suggest social media as one culprit, comparison being the thief of joy and all that. However, this is untested. Other potentially influential cultural changes suggested by the study include the transition to free-market capitalism and competitive individualism, the rise of meritocracy, and an increase in anxious and controlling parenting. “Meritocracy places a strong need for young people to strive, perform, and achieve in modern life,” Curran said in a statement. “Young people are responding by reporting increasingly unrealistic educational and professional expectations for themselves. As a result, perfectionism is rising among millennials.”
Given the economy inherited by today’s young people, this response makes sense. “The results don’t surprise me at all,” said Malcolm Harris, author of Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials. He explained that for young people today, the stakes are simply higher. “With the disappearance of middle-class jobs and lifestyles, it actually matters more where you end up on the spectrum of income distribution. There’s a big hole in the middle, and life in the American working class has gotten harder.” Fewer opportunities means stiff competition and higher standards, forming the bedrock of perfectionism.
The study concludes that this increase in perfectionism may be negatively impacting the mental health of students today. Levels of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts have gone up in the last ten years, and the researchers urge schools and policy makers to find ways to reduce competition. Might I also suggest a nice bath and a promising job market.