Millennials and Gen Z suffer from an epidemic of perfectionism

A new study finds that today's college students score higher on all three types of perfectionism than previous students.

To conduct the study, psychologists Thomas Curran of the University of Bath and Andrew Hill of York St. John University reviewed responses to the Multidimensional Perfection Scale from more than 40,000 college students who participated in the survey across the past three decades. The test measures changes in three types of perfectionism:

  • Self-directed (intrinsic drive to reach perfectionistic goals);
  • Socially prescribed (drive to meet high expectations others have of you); and
  • Other-oriented (holding others to impossibly high standards).

According to the analysis, all three have gradually risen over the past three years, and current college students face the highest rates of any cohort.

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While the researchers acknowledge there can be such a thing as healthy perfectionism, they also note that intense perfectionism has been associated with health risks such as clinical depression, anorexia, and premature death.

The researchers warn readers not to interpret their findings as yet another weakness among millennials or kids these days, but argue instead that the psychology of today's students reflects the broader cultural and economic context into which they are born. They attribute the rise in perfectionism to several socio-economic factors, including social media and an increasingly competitive economy and culture.

The researchers also suggest that the rise in perfectionism may be responsible for the explosion in rates of depression and anxiety among young people. The American College Health Association found the rate of undergraduates reporting "overwhelming anxiety" increased from 50% in 2011 to 62% in 2016  (MacLellan, Quartz, 1/4; Cowart, New York Magazine, 1/3).

Also see: How to address mental health with international students


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