Elementary- and middle-school-aged perfectionists don’t perform any better in class than their laid-back peers, according to a York University study.
“People have often equated perfectionism with being gifted, but there’s increasing evidence that perfectionism in kids is associated with emotional problems” including anxiety and depression, says the study’s co-author, Gordon Flett, a professor of psychology at York.
“Comparative studies hadn’t really been done until now.”
Flett and his colleagues surveyed fouth- and seventh-grade students from three streams — regular, intellectually gifted, and fine arts gifted. (The term “gifted” was defined by the York Region District School Board.)
The researchers measured the students’ levels of perfectionism, emotional symptoms such as anxiety and sadness, and obtained test scores, which had been gathered when the students were in grades three and six.
“We found, first of all, that there was no indication gifted kids were more perfectionistic than non-gifted kids,” Flett says. “But within each group, those who were higher in perfectionism, especially perceived pressure from others to be perfect, were reporting higher levels of anxiety and sadness.”
Flett wasn’t surprised by the results, but admits he expected a “performance advantage.”
“There was a slight advantage in math, but by and large, perfectionism was not related to higher levels of achievement,” he says. “And you had a cost in terms of sadness and anxiety.”
Flett likens such students to Brian Johnson, the overachiever played by Anthony Michael Hall in The Breakfast Club. “He admits that he tried to kill himself with a flare gun,” Flett says.
“When it’s at that extreme level, there’s a compulsion to achieve, and anything short of it is horrendous.
“You can extrapolate that somebody who persists in their perfectionism, as they make their way through the school system and later in life, could be prone to ever-greater levels of anxiety and sadness.”
As for the study’s applications, Flett believes there should be an increased focus on mental-health issues in schools.
“There’s a lot that can be done to prevent these problems before they escalate into anxiety or depression, or even suicide,” he says, “and I think given the sheer volume of kids in need of assistance versus the relatively few resources that are available, we need to start being more proactive.”