A new study links a rise in perfectionism among college students to harmful, all-or-nothing expectations for success that parents increasingly have for their children in a high-pressure world.
The study, published Thursday in the journal Psychological Bulletin, notes that runaway perfectionism contributes to a rise in depression, anxiety, self-harm and eating disorders.
As perfectionists become more neurotic, they also become less conscientious and aware of others as they age, passing these traits down to future generations with “perfectionist parents raising perfectionist children,” the study found.
“This work is the first to show that expectations are rising over recent generations of young people,” lead researcher Thomas Curran, an assistant professor of psychological and behavioral science at the London School of Economics and Political Science, told The Washington Times in an email. “We’ve long suspected it but there’s now good evidence and the increase is quite startling.”
In its analysis of data from more than 20,000 American, Canadian and British college students, the study found that students’ perceptions of parents’ expectations and criticism have increased over the past 32 years, linked to a rise in their self-critical pursuit of flawless behavior.
However, the research shows only a correlation between parental expectations and the perfectionism of college students, not causation.
The study also cites social media images, employer expectations and the rhetoric of academic institutions as possible factors in students’ growing perception that others expect them to be perfect.
“But to reiterate, this is not the parents’ fault,” Mr. Curran said. “They’re more or less forced to set higher expectations because society — schools, colleges, the workplace — places pressure on young people to achieve excessively high standards.”
Fellow researcher Andrew P. Hill, a professor of sport and exercise psychology at York St. John University in England, said “the pressure to conform to perfect ideals has never been greater and could be the basis for an impending public health issue.”
“These trends may help explain increasing mental health issues in young people and suggest this problem will only worsen in the future,” Mr. Hill added. “It’s normal for parents to be anxious about their children, but increasingly this anxiety is being interpreted as pressure to be perfect.”
That pressure comes from society’s demands that children perform flawlessly at school or risk falling down the socioeconomic ladder, according to the researchers, who argue that cultural institutions need to lower their expectations of human behavior.
In a previous analysis of 21 studies that involved more than 7,000 college students, Mr. Curran and Mr. Hill found three types of parent-driven perfectionism rising among young people in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom: self-oriented perfectionism, other-oriented perfectionism and socially prescribed perfectionism.
That first study found that parental expectations and criticism had a moderate impact on the first two, which involve young people’s high standards for themselves and others.
American college students reported higher levels of self-oriented perfectionism than Canadian and British students, which the study attributed partly to a more competitive academic atmosphere in the U.S.
The study published Thursday analyzed 84 smaller studies conducted between 1989 and 2021 with a total of 23,975 college students. It confirmed that parental expectations, criticism and pressure from both factors increased during those 32 years.
“Parents can help their children navigate societal pressures in a healthy way by teaching them that failure, or imperfection, is a normal and natural part of life,” Mr. Curran said. “Focusing on learning and development, not test scores or social media, helps children develop healthy self-esteem, which doesn’t depend on others’ validation or external metrics.”