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Perfectionism (psychology)

Perfectionism, in psychology, is a belief that perfection can and should be attained. In its pathological form, it is a belief that anything less than perfect is unacceptable. At pathological levels, this is considered an unhealthy belief.

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Measurement and definition

Hamachek (cited by Parker & Adkins 1994) describes two types of perfectionism. Normal perfectionists "derive a very real sense of pleasure from the labours of a painstaking effort" while neurotic perfectionists are "unable to feel satisfaction because in their own eyes they never seem to do things good enough to warrant that feeling". Burns (also in Parker & Adkins 1994) defines perfectionists as "people who strain compulsively and unremittingly toward impossible goals and who measure their own worth entirely in terms of productivity and accomplishment".[1]

Hewitt and Flett (1991) devised the Perfectionistic Self-Presentation Scale (PSPS), which rates three aspects of perfectionistic self-presentation: advertising one's own perfection, avoiding situations in which one might appear to be imperfect and failing to disclose situations in which one has been imperfect.[2]

Slaney (1996) created the Almost Perfect scale, which contains four variables: Standards and Order, Relationships, Anxiety, and Procrastination. It distinguishes between adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism. Both adaptive and maladaptive perfectionists rate high in Standards and Order, but maladaptive perfectionists also rate high in Anxiety and Procrastination.[3]

In the book Too Perfect, Mallinger and DeWyze describe perfectionists as having obsessive personality types. The obessive personality type is distinct from obsessive-compulsive personality disorder; OCD is a clinical disorder that may be associated with specific ritualized behavior. According to Mallinger and DeWyze, perfectionists are obsessives who need to feel in control at all times to protect themselves and ensure their own safety. By being constantly vigilant and trying extremely hard, they can not only ensure that they not only fail to disappoint or are beyond reproach but also they can protect against unforeseen issues (such as economic downturn). Vigilance may include constant monitoring of the news, weather, and financial markets.

Perfectionists may be workaholics who can't relax; people who reproach themselves for the smallest errors or wrong words for days afterwards; the person so intent on finding the perfect mate that they never settle down; the procrastinator; the finicky person; and so on. Perfectionists tend to be exceptionally sensitive to criticism. [4]

Perfectionists often embody some or all of the following personality traits: emotional guardedness; fear of making mistakes or errors; thrift; need to be above criticism; tendency to be stubborn or oppositional; and so on. [5]

Perfectionism is one of the 16 Personality Factors identified by Raymond Cattell. It may be related to Conscientiousness and Neuroticism in the Big Five personality traits.

Stoeber and Otto (2006) recently reviewed the various definitions and measures of perfectionism. They found that perfectionism comprised two main dimensions: perfectionistic strivings and perfectionistic concerns. Perfectionistic strivings are associated with positive aspects (see below) and perfectionistic concerns with negative aspects (see below). Healthy perfectionists rate high in perfectionistic strivings and low in perfectionistic concerns, whereas unhealthy perfectionists rate high in perfectionistic strivings and high in perfectionistic concerns.[6]

Positive aspects

Perfectionism can drive people to accomplishments and provide the motivation to persevere in the face of discouragement and obstacles. Roedell (1984) argues that "in a positive form, perfectionism can provide the driving energy which leads to great achievement. The meticulous attention to detail necessary for scientific investigation, the commitment which pushes composers to keep working until the music realises the glorious sounds playing in the imagination, and the persistence which keeps great artists at their easels until their creation matches their conception all result from perfectionism".[7]

Slaney found that adaptive perfectionists had lower levels of procrastination than non-perfectionists. High-achieving athletes, scientists, and artists often show signs of perfectionism. For example, Michelangelo's perfectionism may have spurred him to create masterpieces such as the statue David and the Sistine Chapel. Perfectionism is associated with giftedness in children.

Negative aspects

In its pathological form, perfectionism can be very damaging. It can take the form of procrastination when it is used to postpone tasks ("I can't start my project until I know the 'right' way to do it."), and self-deprecation when it is used to excuse poor performance or to seek sympathy and affirmation from other people ("I can't believe I don't know how to reach my own goals. I must be stupid; how else could I not be able to do this?").

In the workplace, perfectionism is often marked by low productivity as individuals lose time and energy on small irrelevant details of larger projects or mundane daily activities. This can lead to depression, alienated colleagues, and a greater risk of accidents.[8] Adderholt-Elliot (1989) describes five characteristics of perfectionist students and teachers which contribute to underachievement: procrastination, fear of failure, the all-or-nothing mindset, paralysed perfectionism, and workaholism.[9] In intimate relationships, unrealistic expectations can cause significant dissatisfaction for both partners.[10] Perfectionists may sacrifice family and social activities in the quest for their goals.

Perfectionists can suffer anxiety and low self-esteem. Perfectionism is a risk factor for obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders, and clinical depression.

Therapists attempt to tackle the negative thinking that surrounds perfectionism, in particular the "all-or-nothing" thinking where the client believes that an achievement is either perfect or useless. They encourage clients to set realistic goals and to face their fear of failure.


Like most personality traits, perfectionism tends to run in families and probably has a genetic component. Parents who practice an authoritarian style combined with conditional love may contribute to perfectionism in their children.[11]

Perfectionism may be a legacy of our evolutionary past. Hominids who were motivated for prolonged, incremental improvement (perfectionism) could create better tools and this would provide significant survival advantages.[12]


  1. ^  Parker, W. D. & Adkins, K. K. (1994). Perfectionism and the gifted. Roeper Review, 17 (3), 173-176.
  2. ^  Hewitt and Flett (1991) The Perfectionistic Self-Presentation Scale
  3. ^  Slaney, Robert (1996) The Almost Perfect Definition
  4. ^  Stoeber, J. & Otto, K. (2006). Positive conceptions of perfectionism: Approaches, evidence, challenges. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10 (4), 295-319.
  5. ^  Roedell, W. C. (1984). Vulnerabilities of highly gifted children. Roeper Review, 6 (3), 127-130.
  6. ^ Perfectionism: Impossible Dream
  7. ^ Adderholt-Elliot, M. (1989). Perfectionism and underachievement. Gifted Child Today, 12 (1), 19-21.
  8. ^ The Perfectionist's Flawed Marriage
  9. ^ Perfectionism: Causes and Explanations
  10. ^ Castro JR & Rice KG (2003) Perfectionism and ethnicity
  11. ^ The Evolutionary Psychology of Perfectionism
  12. ^ Mallinger, A. & DeWyze, J. (1992). Too Perfect: When Being in Control Gets Out of Control.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Perfectionism_(psychology)". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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