Thursday, May 16, 2019

Perfectionism is increasing over time; culprits are neoliberalism, meritocracy... and Texan Big Oil :-)

OK, the paper says nothing about Big Oil or Big Pharma... I was just channeling...

The full paper is interesting throughout if you have axes to grind with meritocracy, etc.


Curran, T., & Hill, A. P. (2019). Perfectionism is increasing over time: A meta-analysis of birth cohort differences from 1989 to 2016. Psychological Bulletin, 145(4), 410-429.

Abstract: From the 1980s onward, neoliberal governance in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom has emphasized competitive individualism and people have seemingly responded, in kind, by agitating to perfect themselves and their lifestyles. In this study, the authors examine whether cultural changes have coincided with an increase in multidimensional perfectionism in college students over the last 27 years. Their analyses are based on 164 samples and 41,641 American, Canadian, and British college students, who completed the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale (Hewitt & Flett, 1991) between 1989 and 2016 (70.92% female, Mage = 20.66). Cross-temporal meta-analysis revealed that levels of self-oriented perfectionism, socially prescribed perfectionism, and other-oriented perfectionism have linearly increased. These trends remained when controlling for gender and between-country differences in perfectionism scores. Overall, in order of magnitude of the observed increase, the findings indicate that recent generations of young people perceive that others are more demanding of them, are more demanding of others, and are more demanding of themselves

Multidimensional Perfectionism
Perfectionism is broadly defined as a combination of excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations [...] One well-studied model of multidimensional perfectionism is that proposed by Hewitt and Flett (1991). In their model, perfectionism is understood in terms of the direction of perfectionistic beliefs and behaviors. When directed toward the self, individuals attach irrational importance to being perfect, hold unrealistic expectations of themselves, and are punitive in their self-evaluations (self-oriented perfectionism). When perceived to come from others, individuals believe their social context is excessively demanding, that others judge them harshly, and that they must display perfection to secure approval (socially prescribed perfectionism). When perfectionistic expectations are directed toward others, individuals impose unrealistic standards on those around them and evaluate others critically (other-oriented perfectionism). [...]


[...] Socially prescribed perfectionism is the most debilitating of the three dimensions of perfectionism. This is because the perceived expectations of others are experienced as excessive, uncontrollable, and unfair, making failure experiences and negative emotional states common (Hewitt & Flett, 1991). The debilitating nature of socially prescribed perfectionism is evident in research on college students, which has found this dimension of perfectionism to be positively associated with major psychopathology (e.g., anxiety, depressive symptoms, and suicide ideation; Martin, Flett, Hewitt, Krames, & Szanto, 1996; Hewitt, Flett, & Weber, 1994; Sherry, Hewitt, Flett, & Harvey, 2003). These relationships have been replicated in longitudinal and experimental studies (e.g., Flett, Endler, Tassone, & Hewitt, 1995; Hewitt, Flett, & Ediger, 1995; O’Connor, O’Connor, O’Connor, Smallwood, & Miles, 2004). Like self-oriented perfectionism, the reviews of Smith et al. (2016, 2017) showed that socially prescribed perfectionism predicted increases in depressive symptoms and suicide ideation over time, but to a much greater degree.


Cultural Change and Perfectionism Development

Emergence of Neoliberalism and Perfectionism
Cultural values in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom have undergone a remarkable change in recent decades. From the late 1970s onward, several events have brought about significant social and economic transformation. The postwar New Deal (United States and Canada), Consensus (United Kingdom), and the emergence of neoliberalism in the industrialized world has reshaped the cultural, political, and economic landscape (Blyth, 2002). Neoliberalism is a model of social studies and economics borne of revived (neo) 19th-century capitalist (liberal) principles. It elevates the market, and market-based systems of interpersonal evaluation, to the level of state-endorsed norms (Davies, 2014). Accordingly, market distortions fashioned by state interventionism (e.g., collective bargaining and public ownership) are minimized under neoliberal governance, replaced instead by efforts to foster unconstrained competition between self-interested individuals (e.g., deregulation and privatization; Harvey, 2005).
As young people internalize the cultural frames of neoliberalism, changes in how they construe a sense of self and identity are evident in various ways. Perhaps most notably, neoliberalism has seen the dominance of collectivism progressively give way to a wave of competitive individualism. For example, more recent generations of college students in the United States report higher levels of narcissism, extraversion, and self-confidence than previous generations (e.g., Twenge, 2001a; Twenge, Campbell, & Gentile, 2012; Twenge, Konrath, Foster, Campbell, & Bushman, 2008). At the same time, communal traits have waned. This is evident in that more recent generations of college students show less empathy toward others and are more likely to blame victims when things go wrong (e.g., Konrath, O’Brien, & Hsing, 2011; Malahy, Rubinlicht, & Kaiser, 2009; Twenge et al., 2012). Young people also appear now to be more self-interested and spend less time doing group activities for fun and more time doing individual activities for instrumental value or sense of personal achievement (see Twenge, 2014).
In the same fashion, behaviors associated with competition and the attainment of social standing have risen (Kasser, Ryan, Couchman, & Sheldon, 2004). In recent years, data suggests that individuals across the industrialized world have become preoccupied with upward social comparison, experience considerable status anxiety, and adopt materialism as a means of perfecting their lives in relation to others (e.g., De Botton, 2004; Marmot, 2004; Scott, Martin, & Schouten, 2014). The increase in materialism is particularly evident in the shifting values and behaviors of young people. Eighty-one percent of Americans born in the 1980s report that getting materially rich is among their most important life goals, a figure that is almost 20% higher than those born in the 1960s and 1970s (Pew Research Center, 2007). More recent generations of young people also borrow more heavily than did older generations at the same period of life span and spend, on average, a far greater proportion of their income on status possessions and image goods than did their parents (e.g., luxury vehicles and designer labels; Bricker, Ramcharan, & Krimmel, 2014; Jiang & Dunn, 2013; Parment, 2013).
Not only more dissatisfied with what they have, young people are also seemingly more dissatisfied with who they are (Eckersley, 2006). Platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat have become ubiquitous, occupying 2 out of every 5 min spent online (GlobalWebIndex, 2016). The popularity of these platforms is, in part, explained by how they allow users to curate a perfect public image (Mendelson & Papacharissi, 2011). Yet rather than alleviate presentational and interpersonal anxieties, studies indicate that exposure to others’ perfect self-representations within social media can intensify one’s own body image concerns and sense of social alienation (Grabe, Ward, & Hyde, 2008; Paik & Sanchagrin, 2013). Other data suggests that young people are struggling to cope with a visual culture which emphases unrealistic body ideals. The most recent cohort data from the United States and the United Kingdom show that incidence of body dysmorphia and eating disorders has risen by approximately 30% among late adolescent girls since the advent of social media (e.g., PwC, 2015; Smink, van Hoeken, & Hoek, 2012; Thompson & Durrani, 2007). In the same countries, increasing numbers of young people are turning to plastic surgery and its promise of bodily perfection (e.g., British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, 2015; American Society of Plastic Surgeons, 2016; Thomas, 2015).
With general social malaise as a backdrop, neoliberalism has succeeded in shifting cultural values so to now emphasize competitiveness, individualism, and irrational ideals of the perfectible self (Verhaeghe, 2014). These ideals are systemic within contemporary language patterns, the media, and social and civic institutions, and are evident in the rise of competitive and individualistic traits, materialistic behavior, and presentational anxieties among recent generations of young people. Revisiting Hewitt et al.’s (2017) model, it is interesting to consider how young people are coming to construct a sense of self and identity in this kind of culture. The notion of a flawed and disordered self appears especially relevant (Banai, Mikulincer, & Shaver, 2005). That is, a sense of self overwhelmed by pathological worry and a fear of negative social evaluation, characterized by a focus on deficiencies, and sensitive to criticism and failure. This sense of self is a close match to the sense of self constructed by perfectionists and is reflected in many of the recent changes to self, identity, and behavior observed in young people. Young people appear to have internalized irrational social ideals of the perfectible self that, while unrealistic, are to them eminently desirable and obtainable. Broadly speaking, then, increasing levels of perfectionism might be considered symptomatic of the way in which young people are coping—to feel safe, connected, and of worth—in neoliberalism’s new culture of competitive individualism.

The Rise of Meritocracy and Perfectionism
The caveat emptor of neoliberalism lies in its meritocratic starting point. The perfect life and lifestyle—encapsulated by achievement, wealth, and social status—are available to anyone provided you try hard enough (Frank, 2016). According to neoliberal meritocracy, those who reach the top schools and colleges, or gain entry to occupations offering the most profitable employment, receive their due rewards of wealth and social status. For those who do not reach such educational and professional heights, the doctrine of meritocracy dictates they are less deserving and their poor achievement reflects their inadequate personal abilities (e.g., skills, intelligence, and efforts; Hayes, 2012). The doctrine of neoliberal meritocracy therefore falsely and insidiously connects the principles of educational and professional achievement, status, and wealth with innate personal value (e.g., Clark, 1965; Ehrenreich, 1989; Guinier, 2015). In turn, because individuals cannot avoid being sorted, sifted, and ranked by schools, universities, and the workplace, neoliberal meritocracy places a strong need to strive, perform, and achieve at the center of modern life.
Most acutely, the merging of academic and economic meritocracies has redefined the purpose of education. Whereas education has historically sought to provide young people with a broader repertoire of skills and knowledge, neoliberal meritocracy stresses that skills and knowledge are worthless unless they confer economic value (Verhaeghe, 2014). This places considerable pressure on young people to strive, compete, and meet increasingly higher expectations in school and college—less they wish to damage their future market price. The effects of merging academic and economic meritocracies are reflected in the escalating educational expectations of young people. In the United States, where cohort data is available, approximately half of high school seniors in 1976 expected to attain at least some college degree, by 2008 that figure had risen to over 80% (Jacob & Wilder, 2011). Yet actual degree attainment has failed to keep pace with rising expectations. The gap between the percentage of high school seniors expecting to obtain a college degree and the percent of young people with a college degree doubled between 1976 and 2000 and has continued to rise (Johnson & Reynolds, 2013; Reynolds, Stewart, MacDonald, & Sischo, 2006). Together, this research suggests that the expectations of many young people are increasingly unrealistic (Baird, Burge, & Reynolds, 2008).
As young people’s expectations have increased, so have the educational demands placed on them. Intense competition for elite college admission has meant that, relative to previous generations, current high school students in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom are subjected to more numerous and stringent standardized tests (Guinier, 2015). At the same time, although the number of students going to college has increased, the wage premium associated with a college degree has stagnated over the last 20 years (Moretti, 2013). One reason for this stagnation is a saturation of the graduate job market and underemployment among graduates in developed countries (i.e., holding jobs that do not require a degree), which is currently much higher among recent generations of college graduates than it was for older generations at the same period of life (Abel, Deitz, & Su, 2014). Instead, research in the United States and the United Kingdom shows that the college premium is now almost entirely attributable to the income of those with postgraduate degrees (Brynin, 2013; Shierholz & Mishel, 2013). Just 10% of the U.S. workforce, 7% of the Canadian workforce, and 11% of the U.K. workforce have postgraduate qualifications (Lindley & Machin, 2013; Statistics Canada, 2012). Young people, therefore, must complete a college degree, and now must also obtain a postgraduate qualification, if they are to demonstrate their economic merit.
Over time, then, meritocracy raises the bar of society’s expectations such that they become unattainable to the majority—especially for young people, and especially in terms of educational achievement. Perceptions of unrealistic achievement standards are common in models that seek to explain the development of perfectionism. Although written some time ago, Hamachek (1978) stated on the link between the need to achieve and perfectionism that “[perfectionists] may over-value performance and undervalue the self. He learns only through performance that he has a self” (p. 29). The notion that perfectionists come to overvalue accomplishment is also echoed and expanded upon in the recent writing of Hewitt et al. (2017). Here, perfectionism is conceived as a misguided attempt to procure others’ approval and repair feelings of unworthiness and shame through displays of high achievement. Hewitt et al.’s description of perfectionism development is allied to the machinations of meritocratic culture in that striving for high achievement standards and the attainment of perfection are actively encouraged and rewarded. Young people are taught that the principles of meritocracy are good, fair, and just. In response, they are compelled to demonstrate their merit, set increasingly higher and unrealistic goals, and come to define themselves in the strict and narrow terms of personal achievement.

Altered Parental Practices and Perfectionism
As we have described, neoliberalism and its doctrine of meritocracy have combined to shape a culture in which everybody is expected to perfect themselves and their lifestyles by striving to meet unrealistic achievement standards.

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