Neoliberalism Drives Increase in Perfectionism Among College Students

Meta-analytic study detects upsurge in patterns of perfectionism in young adults and explores how neoliberalism contributes to this trend

Sadie Cathcart
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In their recent examination of perfectionism in college students published in the Psychological Bulletin, Thomas Curran, of the University of Bath, and Andrew P. Hill, of York St. John University, identify upward trends in perfectionist attitudes and behaviors among young adults in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Additionally, they link increases in perceived pressures from others, increased expectations of others, and increased self-directed pressures to a variety of cultural and contextual trends including the emergence of neoliberalism, the rise of meritocracy, and altered parental pressures.

Although past research has explored correlates of perfectionism and smaller-scale environmental factors associated with the development of patterns of perfectionism, Curran and Hill’s systems-level meta-analysis accounts for bigger-picture components of these alarming patterns.

“Dimensions” Student Fashion Show at College of DuPage 2017

Countering the common misconception that today’s college students are more self-absorbed than those of decades past, one recent study found modest declines in rates of narcissism in college students. Although self-imposed pressure may be increasing (its effects, crippling), and a self-compassion deficit has been well documented among Western youth, there is evidence that the narcissism epidemic may be no more than a myth. It is worth considering the possibility that some of the pressures that overwhelm college students and heighten perfectionist tendencies may be misinterpreted as narcissism. Perfectionism may look like a characteristic of self-absorption on an individual level, but Curran and Hill posit that it may be a symptom of the imposition of significant, broad-scale external factors.

“In its broadest sense, perfectionism can be understood to develop through the messages that young people internalize from their immediate social environments, the resulting view of themselves, especially how they construe self-worth and how it is established, and their sense of self in relation to others.”

Laying the foundation for exploration of contributing cultural variables, Curran and Hill begin by outlining the influence of neoliberalism on the movement away from collectivist values in favor of individualism. Neoliberal, capitalist priorities give preference to production by means of unconstrained competition over cooperation and community. Within current economic and political circumstances, authors suggest that self-absorption may be an adaptive quality.

Further, Curran and Hill assert that the rise of meritocracy, coinciding and intertwined with neoliberalism, may be leading young people to believe that their productivity and output are direct reflections of their worth. Endorsement, whether deliberate or subconscious, of neoliberal and meritocratic trends, Curran and Hill suggest, may contribute to increases in parent-imposed pressure on young adults today. Heightened parental pressure may be a product of parental perceptions of the expectations of others, as well as their perceptions of the expectations that others have of their children. Securing a successful future for children is a daunting prospect in a time of significant pressures and uncertainties.

Authors operationally define perfectionism as a combination of excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations. To determine trends in perfectionism displayed over time across recent generations of college students, Curran and Hill conducted a literature search to locate studies in which the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale had been administered to college students in the US, Canada, and Britain between 1989 and 2016. The search yielded a total of 164 samples of 41,641 students. Authors ran several random effects meta-regression models across domains of perfectionism measured by the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale including self-oriented perfectionism, socially prescribed perfectionism, and other-oriented perfectionism.

Results of the cross-temporal meta-analysis of studies meeting search criteria established a linear increase in perfectionism by birth cohort between 1989 and today. Increases were present across domains of perfectionism examined, and across participant gender and country of origin.

“Perhaps the most important finding from this research is that more recent generations of college students are reporting higher levels of socially prescribed perfectionism than previous generations. This finding suggests that young people are perceiving that their social context is increasingly demanding, that others judge them more harshly, and that they are increasingly inclined to display perfection as a means of securing approval.”

It is important to note that, across the three domains of perfectionism examined, increases in socially prescribed perfectionism were twice those of the other two dimensions. Interestingly, more modest inclines in socially prescribed perfectionism were visible among students in the US compared to more substantial jumps among students in the UK and Canada. However, students in the US were more likely to display patterns of self-oriented perfectionism. While the perceived source of pressure motivating perfectionism may vary, surges in perfectionism are indiscriminately visible among college students.

Patterns identified by Curran and Hill represent cause for concern. While ambition to succeed may be commendable in certain contexts, widespread commitment to perfectionism and associated self-absorption may do more damage than good.

 

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Curran, T., & Hill, A. P. (2017). Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time: A Meta-Analysis of Birth Cohort Differences From 1989 to 2016. Psychological Bulletin. (Link)

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Sadie Cathcart
Sadie Cathcart is a doctoral student and researcher within the Counseling and School Psychology program at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Sadie belongs to the school psychology track, and her research interests include the psychosocial implications of chronic illness in childhood, relationships between health and educational opportunities, and creative approaches to boosting student and family engagement in learning.

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6 COMMENTS

  1. “Meritocracy” and “perfection”, where is this leading? Of course. To that other ‘ocracy’, corporatocracy, the backbone of neo-liberalism. I would suggest that privilege and elitism have a lot to do with this matter, and that puritanism has a lot to do with it as well. Where, after all, would the myths of “meritocracy” and “perfection” be without a good dose of puritanism. What’s the other side of puritanism? Oh, yeah, the peoples to be thrown under the bus. In other words, the inquisition and witch hunt that aims to go after those who are deemed “imperfect” and unworthy. Take a look, for instance, at what’s going on in Hollywood and Washington D.C. right now.

  2. I think the author would do well to visit the School Sucks project page as they routinely address this with educators, economists and social scientists as a product of formal education. She should also realize that she – like everyone who uses the term, used it incorrectly. Neoliberalism is the Leftist term for Crony Capitalism. And it was created as an intentional turn away from Classical liberalism. And both are terrible to both the left & right for opposite reasons. But yeah, this is not a product of competition. It’s the product of putting kids in a crucible which is intended to break them down. I would’ve thought Peter Gray would’ve made the rounds in the Mad in America circles. I guess not.
    FEE – What is Neoliberalism anyway. https://fee.org/articles/what-is-neoliberalism-anyway/
    http://schoolsucksproject.com/new-start-here/

    • She should also realize that she – like everyone who uses the term, used it incorrectly.

      I agree with you that most people do, though likely for different reasons — my definition of “leftist” is “anti-capitalist,” otherwise it would be so ambiguous and vague as to be meaningless…hence the term “liberal/leftist” is contradictory, you’re either one or the other.

      • This is a serious question, “oldhead”. Why are you so attached to labels? Why are you so enamored with the whole “left/right’ delusion? Why are you so attached to vague, nebulous concepts that you were taught in school? Don’t you see that “left/right”, “liberal/conservative”, and even “capitalism/socialism” are ALL exactly as “REAL” as so-called “mental illnesses”? That so-called “mental illnesses” are exactly as “real” as presents from Santa Claus? WHY are YOU so ATTACHED….????….
        Probably, as usual, you’ll ignore me. But I had to try. Jesus and Buddha both sent me to liberate you from your attachments…. JC says you still won’t be saved, but it’ll earn you some brownie points, and gold stars!
        Seriously, *WHY* are you so attached to increasingly obsolete delusions?
        RSVP? BTW, I am neither “leftist”, nor “liberal”…..

    • I’ve seen classical liberalism (less government) contrasted with progressive liberalism (more government) from some conservative quarters but, without touching the market, and a global market that’s manipulating politics, they’re both neo-liberal, aren’t they? Any capitalist left wouldn’t be much of a left, and so I guess what I’m saying is that I agree with you, OldHead, on this one.

      I don’t really see neo-liberalism as crony capitalism because neo-liberalism advances the same laissez-faire approaches to economics that crony capitalism would find problematic, and crony capitalism would be included as an expression of neo-liberalism for it’s own laissez-faire practices as well. Traditional “competition” and the good old boy system being, in some regards, best of buddies.