A Perfect Summer

Here in the Personality Lab, we’ve had the pleasure of exploring a variety of topics this summer, getting the opportunity to work with students on campus and collect data from people across the country through use of an online server.  While we touched on a broad span of topics, we took a particular interest in one: perfectionism.

For a majority of the summer, we spent our afternoons behind two closed doors and drawn curtains, and seated in front of a computer monitor.  Thankfully, though, we were never alone: on the other side of the doors, talking to us via Google Chat, was a student.  We got the chance to spend an hour talking to students about their views on perfectionism, what it meant to be perfect, and pressures which many of us feel to come across in a certain way.  Students answered our questions and talked about their own experiences with these pressures, whether they felt the need to hide the amount of effort they put into something or the anxiety which they felt, and perfectionism overall.

Perfectionism is a large topic, and while we had interest in perfectionism overall, we narrowed our sights onto a particular type: effortless perfectionism.  What is effortless perfectionism?  Let’s look at this example: a student has a large presentation to complete by the end of the semester.  They spend a significant amount of time trying to make the presentation appear perfect: good length, well-informed, well-delivered, aesthetically pleasing…whatever they can do to make the presentation ‘perfect,’ they do it.  Their friends may ask them if they want to hang out, and the student turns down the invitation to work on the presentation, but offers a different reason.  They might stay up late several nights to complete the presentation so as others will not know that they are working on it.  When they give their presentation to the class, they have a smooth delivery, since they had practiced often and knew the material well.  However, when asked by a classmate how much time the presentation had taken them to prepare, the student says that they did not spend a lot of time working on it.  Maybe they say that they only started looking at it a day or so ago, or that they feel they did poorly because they were ill-prepared.  No matter what the student says, they deny the idea that they had put in a lot of effort, and may overtly lie about their effort.

Effortless perfectionism takes traditional perfectionism to a different level: not only does everything the individual does have to appear perfect, but it has to appear to have happened naturally and effortlessly.  This has been a growing interest in the field in general, as students at high-pressure schools continue to struggle with mental disorders and demand for mental health treatment on campuses continues to escalate.

Despite this attention, no measure currently exists that targets this concept, a problem which we hope to fix through this study.  At present, effortless perfectionism has best been measured through scales assessing Hiding Effort (Flett, Nepon, Hewitt, Molnar, & Zhao, 2016), but this fails to capture the entirety of the construct.  It’s believed that this ‘hiding effort’ is related to effortless perfection, since both contribute to this image of achieving perfect work with seemingly minimal effort.  We used the anonymous interview process to ask students about their experiences with hiding their effort and anxiety, watching their peers hide their effort and anxiety, and to discuss the pressures they feel which influence why they hide and the type of image they feel they need to project.  Effortless perfectionism concerns hiding effort, but it also leads people to hide their anxieties.  The same student from earlier might become very anxious when they know they will have to speak in front of the class, for example, but they deny their anxieties surrounding this because it suggests that they are not perfect.  In order to appear naturally perfect, they must also be confident in themselves, and therefore must conceal any anxiety which they may feel.

Perfectionism is linked to several psychological disorders, and has been found to have group differences across age, gender, and socioeconomic status.  For these reasons, it is important to examine the finer details of perfectionism, especially a subtype such as effortless perfectionism, which is linked with higher rates of mental and emotional anguish.  Recently, universities and colleges across the United States have begun to form initiatives to address the issues arising from perfectionism, such as the ‘Failing Well’ movement at Smith College, to teach students to accept their failures and shortcomings in a healthy manner.  The Penn Faces movement at the University of Pennsylvania addresses similar concerns: teaching students at a high-stress institution that failure is part of life, and that resilience is important.

As fall semester rolls around, we’ll be thinking about more than just effortless perfection.    Self-compassion has been another topic of interest for the lab, and for good reason: manipulating state self-compassion has been found to have effects on a variety of measures, including pain tolerance.  In previous research conducted in this lab, it was found that a manipulation that increases state self-compassion could increase pain sensitivity in individuals with a history of self-harm, meaning they were able to withstand less pain after undergoing the manipulation (Gregory, Glazer, & Berenson, 2017). The concept of effortless perfectionism seems to be in contradiction with the principles of self-compassion.  The lab plans to examine what this relationship is, and how it can be manipulated to help those high in effortless perfection become more self-compassionate. We’re also looking to see whether a similar manipulation could affect the way an individual perceives stigma surrounding mental disorders in their community and ultimately increase their willingness to seek treatment.

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