Perfectionism on the rise among university students

Researchers have linked the rise in unrealistic expectations among students with the rise in mental health issues

January 12, 2018
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Today’s university students are striving for perfection more than ever before – but their efforts could be taking a toll on their mental health, according to a new study.

Researchers found that recent generations of college students reported having much higher levels of perfectionism than those of earlier generations.

Thomas Curran of the University of Bath and Andrew Hill of York St John University analysed data from 41,641 US, Canadian and British students who completed the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale from the late 1980s to 2016.

This measured three types of perfectionism: self-oriented, or an irrational desire to be perfect; socially prescribed, or perceiving excessive expectations from others; and other-oriented, or placing unrealistic standards on others.

The results, published in the journal Psychological Bulletin, showed a marked generational divide.

Between 1989 and 2016, the “self-oriented perfectionism” score increased by 10 per cent, the “socially prescribed” by 33 per cent, and “other-oriented” by 16 per cent.

According to its authors, the study is the first to examine differences in perfectionism, which entails “an irrational desire to achieve, along with being overly critical of oneself and others”.

The recent increase in unrealistic expectations, said Dr Curran, is partly the fault of universities that encourage competition among students to move up the social and economic ladder.

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

Other influential cultural changes identified by the researchers include the emergence of neoliberalism and competitive individualism and increasingly anxious and controlling parental practices.

This, according to the researchers, is reflected in the steep rise in final-year school pupils who expect to earn a university degree – from about half in 1976 to more than 80 per cent of these pupils in 2008.

Nevertheless, the number of those earning degrees has failed to keep up with rising expectations, and the gap between the percentage of final-year school pupils expecting to earn a college degree and those who actually achieved their goal had doubled between 1976 and 2000. Since then, the gap has continued to widen.

“These findings suggest that recent generations of college students have higher expectations of themselves and others than previous generations [had],” Dr Curran said.

“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.”

But their unrealistic expectations are unhealthy, the researchers warned, citing higher levels of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts among students than a decade ago.

“Perfectionism is highly correlated with serious mental illness because perfectionists are highly stress reactive and vigilant to achievement failure and interpersonal rejection,” Dr Curran told Times Higher Education.

He urged universities and policymakers to curb attempts to foster competition among young people in order to preserve their mental health.

“At a basic level, it’s about encouraging effort,” he said. “Goals such as perseverance, diligence and conscientiousness are far better than perfection,” Dr Curran said.

“Evaluation that focuses on the process of learning rather than the outcome [could help with this]. For instance, crediting students for trying to be creative, different or innovative in their work – even if it is wrong or doesn’t quite fit the criteria – is important.

“It is difficult because we have been socialised [to believe] that failure is catastrophic, but it doesn’t have to be. Teaching students that failures are developmental opportunities for growth and betterment is a crucial learning lesson.”

sophie.inge@timeshighereducation.com

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