Perfectionism on the Rise Among College Students

A young man looks stressed about his studies
The stress of college can affect students' health. (Image credit: Stressed college student photo via Shutterstock)

Today's college students have more perfectionistic traits than those of decades past, a new study suggests.

The study is one of the first to examine generational differences in perfectionism, which is defined as having excessively high standards for oneself and being overly self-critical.

In the study, researchers analyzed data from more than 41,000 college students in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom who had completed a survey called the "Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale." The students took the survey between 1989 and 2016. [9 DIY Ways to Improve Your Mental Health]

The survey measures three different types of perfectionism: "self-oriented" perfectionism, or placing high expectations on oneself; "socially prescribed" perfectionism, or thinking that others have high expectations of you; and "other-oriented" perfectionism, or placing high standards on others. Some of the survey's questions include: "When I am working on something, I cannot relax until it is perfect"; "I find it difficult to meet others’ expectations of me"; and "Everything that others do must be of top-notch quality."

The researchers found that today's college students had higher scores on all three types of perfectionism compared with students in earlier decades. Between 1989 and 2016, students' average score for self-oriented perfectionism increased by 10 percent, the average score for socially prescribed perfectionism increased by 33 percent and the average score for other-oriented perfectionism increased by 16 percent.

This rise in perfectionism may be due to a number of factors, including social media use and competition to get into the best colleges or land well-paying jobs, the researchers said.

"These findings suggest that recent generations of college students have higher expectations of themselves and others than previous generations," lead study author Thomas Curran, a social psychologist at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom, said in a statement. "Today's young people are competing with each other in order to meet societal pressures to succeed, and they feel that perfectionism is necessary in order to feel safe, socially connected and of worth."

For example, some data suggest that social media, which allows people to present a perfect image of themselves, may result in young adults feeling more dissatisfied with their bodies or more socially isolated when they compare themselves with these "perfect" images, the researchers said. However, more research is needed to confirm this, they noted.

In addition, young people face intense competition to get into the best colleges and to move up the social and economic ladder, the researchers said. For example, in 1976, about half of high school seniors expected to earn a college degree, compared with 80 percent in 2008. But the actual percentage of young adults who earn college degrees hasn't kept up with their rising expectations: The gap between the percentage of high school seniors expecting to earn a college degree and those who obtain a college degree doubled between 1976 and 2000, Curran said.

The rise in perfectionism could be affecting young adults' mental health, as there has been an increase in levels of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts among college students in recent years, Curran said.

The study was published online on Dec. 28, 2017, in the journal Psychological Bulletin.

Original article on Live Science.

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.