Perfectionist students no further ahead, says York study

Pint-sized perfectionists don’t perform significantly better than their laid-back peers, says a new study led by York University.

The study, which is the first to examine the relationship between perfectionism and achievement in elementary school students, found that perfectionism offers no academic advantage for most pupils. Gifted students who are perfectionists do excel slightly in math, but at a price: they’re more likely to feel unhappy than other children surveyed.

“It turns out that perfectionism in children is actually not just unhealthy – it’s also totally unnecessary where academics are concerned,” says study co-author Gordon Flett, associate dean, psychology professor and Canada Research Chair in Personality & Health in York’s Faculty of Health. “The old adage of ‘no pain, no gain’ is really more like ‘more pain, no gain.’”

Flett and colleagues surveyed Grade 4 and Grade 7 students enrolled in regular, gifted and fine arts streams in elementary schools in the York Region District School Board (YRDSB), using psychological assessment tools that measure both internally and externally motivated or “socially prescribed” perfectionism. Researchers compared these results to respondents’ Canadian Achievement Test scores, administered to YRDSB students in Grades 3 and 6.

The study shows perfectionism is not associated significantly with reading achievement, both in the overall sample and between the three streams of students. Nor are there significant associations between mathematics achievement and socially prescribed perfectionism.

Gifted students who self-reported as perfectionists, while having a slight advantage in math scores, reported lower levels of happiness. This association was not found among the students in the fine arts and regular streams.

Flett says perfectionism may actually inhibit performance for some students.

“The pressure of trying to be perfect and fearing failure can make perfectionists second-guess themselves and cause indecisiveness. Also, perfectionists find it hard to forget about past mistakes they have made, which only adds to the pressure,” he says.

The study also found no evidence that gifted students tend towards perfectionism more than their regular-stream peers, in contrast to stereotypes linking the trait to intellectual giftedness.

Researchers surveyed students using the Child-Adolescent Perfectionism Scale created by Flett and associates, the Harter Perceived Academic Competence Scale and a modified version of the Positive Affect Negative Affect Scale.

“Whether the push is coming from sources external to the child, such as the child’s family, or from the internal drive of that particular student, the overall results are very similar,” says Flett. “Parents, teachers and students – at a certain degree of maturity, of course – should all be aware of these findings. Striving for perfection and feeling pressure to be perfect can be emotionally upsetting.”

The study, “Perfectionism, Achievement and Affect in Children: A Comparison of Students from Gifted, Arts and Regular Programs”, is published in the December issue of the Canadian Journal of School Psychology. It is co-authored by Deborah Stornelli (BA Hons. ’94), a psychologist with the Toronto District School Board and York alumna, and Paul L. Hewitt, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of British Columbia.