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Perfectionism has risen dramatically among young people since 1980s, study finds

In young people, perfectionism is associated with an increased risk of depression, anxiety, eating disorders and thoughts of suicide.

The study found that American college students tend to report higher self-oriented perfectionism than their Canadian or British counterparts.

The drive for perfectionism among young people in the United States, Great Britain and Canada has risen significantly since the late 1980s, according to a study recently published online in the journal Psychological Bulletin.

Current college students in those three countries are much more likely to demand perfectionism of themselves — and of others — than students of earlier generations, the study found.

That is particularly true of young Americans attending college.

The finding is troubling. Other research has shown that perfectionism — defined by the authors of the current study as “an irrational desire to achieve along with being overly critical of oneself and others” — takes a toll on mental health. In young people, perfectionism is associated with an increased risk of depression, anxiety, eating disorders and thoughts of suicide.  

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And, indeed, those mental health issues have been increasing among young adults in recent years. 

Study details

For the study, researchers analyzed data collected from 41,640 American, Canadian and British college students who had completed a questionnaire that measures perfectionist traits. The data had been used in published studies dating back to 1989 and running through 2016.

The questionnaire measures three types of perfectionism: self-oriented (an irrational desire to be perfect), other-oriented (an unrealistic demand of perfection in others), and socially prescribed (a belief that others expect people to be perfect). 

The analysis found that with each succeeding generation of college students, the scores for all three types perfectionism increased. Specifically, between 1989 and 2016, the self-oriented scores increased 10 percent, the other-oriented scores climbed 16 percent and the socially prescribed scores rose a stunning 33 percent. 

“These findings suggest that recent generations of college students have higher expectations of themselves and others than previous generations,” said Thomas Curran, the study’s lead author and a social psychologist at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom, in a released statement. “Today’s young people are competing with each other in order to meet societal pressures to succeed, and they feel that perfectionism is necessary in order to feel safe, socially connected and of worth.”

Multiple possible causes

Curran and his co-author, Andrew Hill of York St John University, point to several cultural developments as possible contributors to the rise in perfectionism. One of these is the growing use of social media, which can lead people to unrealistically compare their lives — and their physical appearance — with others.

Indeed, recent research has shown that the incidence of negative body image issues and eating disorders has increased 30 percent among teenage girls since the advent of social media. In addition, young people are increasingly turning to plastic surgery to “perfect” their bodies.

Another possible reason for the increase in perfectionism, say Curren and Hill, is “the rise in meritocracy,” the idea that “the perfect life and lifestyle — encapsulated by achievement, wealth, and social status — are available to anyone provided you try hard enough.” Yet, although increasing numbers of young people are going to college (more than 80 percent of high school graduates in 2008 compared with about 50 percent in 1976), the wage premium associated with an undergraduate college degree has stagnated over the past 20 years, they add. (As the researchers note in their paper, the educational wage premium today is almost entirely associated with a graduate degree.)

“Meritocracy places a strong need for young people to strive, perform and achieve in modern life,” said Curren. “Young people are responding by reporting increasingly unrealistic educational and professional expectations for themselves. As a result, perfectionism is rising among millennials.” 

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Parents, too, have been swept up in the unrealistic expectations of today’s culture.

“For parents, this new culture confers an additional burden,” write Curren and Hill. “On top of their own duty to succeed, they are also responsible for the successes and failures of their children. Should a young person be unable to navigate an increasingly competitive social milieu, then it is not just their failure, it is also the parents’ failure too.” 

“This internalized concern for one’s child’s success,” they add, “has been labeled child-contingent self-esteem and is evident in the rise of parental expectations for their children’s achievements which, across the industrialized world, are at extremes that psychologists have noted are cause for concern.”

U.S. students most at risk

The study found that American college students tend to report higher self-oriented perfectionism than their Canadian or British counterparts.

“Some researchers have suggested that the United States has become hyper-individualistic in recent decades,” Curren and Hill write in their paper. “Since the 1980s and the Reagan era, communal values in the United States have waned in favor of an individualized notion of liberty, in which the uninhibited pursuit of self-gain is prized more than anything else.” 

The United States also has “an especially strong meritocratic ethos at the heart of the American dream, which places emphasis on college to lift individuals up the social and economic ladder,” they add.

FMI: An abstract of the study can be found on Psychological Bulletin’s website, but the full study is behind a paywall.