A study of college-aged people in the U.S., Canada and Britain says that the increase in mental health disorders may be tied to an increase in perfectionism, which in turn is linked to the rise of neoliberalism in these countries since the ’80s. Thomas Curran, one of the study’s authors, explains
GREG WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Gregory Wilpert coming to you from Quito, Ecuador.
A recent report from the World Health Organization indicates that depression and anxiety disorders worldwide are at an all-time high. It seems, though, that most of the increases in mental disorders have happened in so-called “First World” countries such as Europe and the U.S. and Canada. Why is this?
A study that was released last month in the Bulletin of the American Psychological Association tries to provide an explanation. According to the study, which looked at college-age populations in the U.S., Canada, and Britain, perfectionism has been on the rise throughout the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s. The study relates the rise in perfectionism to the increasing role in neoliberalism in these countries and also shows how perfectionism has a negative impact on mental health.
Joining me to discuss the study is one of its authors, Thomas Curran. Thomas is a lecturer in the Department for Health at the University of Bath. Thanks for joining us today, Thomas.
THOMAS CURRAN: Thank you for having me.
GREG WILPERT: Your study focuses on perfectionism and its rise between 1989 and 2016. First, what do you mean by perfectionism? How do you define it?
THOMAS CURRAN: Perfectionism is a personality characteristic, and it has a number of different elements. Now, the first element of perfectionism is one that, I guess, most people commonly associate with perfectionism, and that’s this idea that we have high levels or excessively high levels of personal standards and we strive for flawlessness. That’s called self-oriented perfectionism, and that’s the first element of perfectionism.
The second is a social dimension of perfectionism, and this is the idea that we perceive that our social climates, the people around us in the immediate environment and also the broader environment, is excessively demanding of us.
And the third element is the dimension of perfectionism that’s directed outwards onto others, so it’s this idea that we expect others to be perfect and we have excessively high demands of others.
Together, those three elements are what we understand when we talk about perfectionism.
GREG WILPERT: I understand that what you did was a study of studies basically, which is to look at 146 research projects, or something like that, on this topic and then reanalyze their results to come up with this broad scope and timeframe. So let’s turn to your main findings, that is that perfectionism has been rising since 1989. You mentioned three different kinds, so what kind of perfectionism has been rising, and in which countries has it been rising the most?
THOMAS CURRAN: We found that all three of those dimensions are rising. But what’s really interesting is the dimension of perfectionism that has undergone the largest increase, twice that of the other two, is socially prescribed perfectionism. As I said, that dimension is associated with the perception that demands placed upon us are excessive. Now, those are the broad headline findings, and that’s the main one.
We controlled for country, so between-country differences. These are American, British, and Canadian college students, so we did a control of a country to see if there’s any differences in those trends, and we didn’t find that when we controlled a country any differences emerged. So essentially, these trends are consistent across the nations, in our analysis.
GREG WILPERT: And you relate the rise in perfectionist attitudes to the rise of neoliberalism during the same time period. What exactly is the connection here between neoliberalism and perfectionism?
THOMAS CURRAN: We were very cautious about using the term “neoliberalism” because it can be considered a bit of a nebulous term. But short of anything better, we wanted to use this phrase because what we mean by “neoliberalism” is this idea that, or essentially a shorthand description for a political philosophy, which essentially suggests that the market and marketized forms of competition are the only organizing principle of human activity. Essentially what that meant is that since the neoliberal era and the market reforms of Thatcher, Reagan, and Mulroney in Canada, is essentially an introduction of marketized forms of competition into civic institutions where they never used to be.
One of the key institutions is education, and we see the market in education for things like standardized testing and the incessant standardized testing of young children from very young ages because tests give us metrics that allow us to rank, sift, and sort, so we can get an idea of which kids are better performing, which kids are worse performing, which kids are going to the top grades and therefore the top places in universities. It’s a very useful way in a market-based society to organize.
But the problem with this, of course, is that what we’re doing is we’re teaching children that they need to compete against each other in an open marketplace. So we are essentially instilling a sense of social anxiety, of social hierarchy. We’re suggesting that inequality is virtuous because those that have done well deserve the rewards. And so essentially what we have now is a culture where we are continually comparing, and it isn’t just in education. The explosion of social media has put this idea of social comparison on steroids and essentially has given us a platform at a societal level for people to engage in social comparison, continually working out where we stand relative to others.
The link to perfectionism here is that if we continually worry about how we perform relative to others, and if the consequences of failure are so catastrophic, both economically but also for our sense of self-worth — that’s to say, if we don’t get the perfect score, if we don’t get a high score, if we don’t rank better than others, then we feel worse about ourselves and our self-esteem — what that means is that we tend to cope in that culture by developing perfectionistic tendencies because of course if we have high standards, then we’re unlikely to fail, and if were unlikely to fail, we’re unlikely to feel badly about ourselves and also we’re more likely to ensure that we have a higher market price.
So that’s why we link it with neoliberalism, because of this idea that we’re almost forcing kids to compete with each other and to cope, perfectionistic tendencies are emerging.
GREG WILPERT: I think that really makes sense, but it seems to me that you define neoliberalism mostly as a culture and less so as a particular practice. And I’m wondering about that because you talk about attitudes, about the neoliberal attitude towards competition, for example. But couldn’t one perhaps also say that neoliberalism is a way of organizing society that is where the welfare state, for example, gets dismantled and state’s functions are privatized, and that basically in the end not just promote an attitude of competition but actually do indeed force us to compete against each other? So that, in other words, it’s not just a culture but also a social condition, if you will, in which we live whether we like it or not and whether we share that culture or that attitude or not. In other words, could it be also that the practice of neoliberalism is generating perfectionism and not just its culture?
THOMAS CURRAN: Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting you say the safety net because, of course, the post-war settlement in the interwar years in the UK here, with Clement Attlee and Aneurin Bevan, they invested heavily in the welfare state, and they socialized the risk of failure. If you were made unemployed or you had health problems, the state was there to give you healthcare or was there to give you a hand up so that you could find a new place of employment.
So the consequences of failure, of course, in that culture and that economic model are far less severe than they are today, where there’s high levels of precarity in the job market, where healthcare is very expensive. And thank goodness in the UK we still have socialized healthcare, but that’s not the case in the U.S.
So you’re absolutely right. It isn’t just the culture, but it’s also the physical, tangible effects on social and civic institutions, which I think also force us to compete but also force us to fear the consequences of economic and image failure.
GREG WILPERT: Finally, just to return to the introduction again, your paper relates perfectionism to mental health problems. What is the connection here between perfectionism and mental health?
THOMAS CURRAN: The seminal work that’s been done in this area has been done by mainly — there are other people I’m probably forgetting, but — there are mainly two professors in Canada, Professor Paul Hewitt and Professor Gordon Flett. A lot of the earlier work, I mean, they’ve done a lot of heavy lifting in this literature, and a lot of the early work that they’ve done in clinical populations, and non-clinical populations but in clinical populations mainly, has suggested that perfectionism is a core vulnerability to severe psychological illness.
The reason why perfectionism is a core vulnerability is because perfectionism is focused … The whole drive in energy from perfectionism comes from all this effort, all of this drive, and all of this need for validation comes from a place of trying to perfect an imperfect self, trying to perfect ourselves. That’s fine. If we’re getting positive feedback and if we’re achieving, those things are okay.
But the problem is for perfectionists, because they have excessively high goals and because perfectionism is by definition an impossible goal, when we fail, because the consequence of failure is so catastrophic for our sense of self-esteem, because we tie our self-esteem on others’ approval and a need for higher achievement, then when we fail or when we are rejected by others or when we don’t receive positive feedback, then we tend to ruminate, we tend to brew over those, what could’ve been otherwise or what we should’ve done. And over time, those very negative thoughts and feelings turn into anxiety, depression, and in the most extreme cases, suicidal thought. So it’s a highly damaging trait, and these trends are quite worrying because of that.
GREG WILPERT: Okay, well, that’s a very interesting study, I find. Thanks so much. I was speaking to Thomas Curran, lecturer at the University of Bath. Thanks again for having joined us today, Thomas.
THOMAS CURRAN: Thank you.
GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.