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Perfectionism, in psychology, is a belief that perfection should be strived for. In its pathological form, it is an unhealthy belief that anything less than perfect is unacceptable.

Definitions and measurements

Hamachek (cited by Parker & Adkins 1994) describes two types of perfectionism. Normal perfectionists "derive a very real sense of pleasure from the labours of a painstaking effort" while neurotic perfectionists are "unable to feel satisfaction because in their own eyes they never seem to do things good enough to warrant that feeling". Burns (also in Parker & Adkins 1994) defines perfectionists as "people who strain compulsively and unremittingly toward impossible goals and who measure their own worth entirely in terms of productivity and accomplishment."[1]

Hewitt and Flett (1991) devised the Perfectionistic Self-Presentation Scale (PSPS), which rates three aspects of perfectionistic self-presentation: advertising one's own perfection, avoiding situations in which one might appear to be imperfect and failing to disclose situations in which one has been imperfect[2].

Slaney(1996) created the Almost Perfect scale, which contains four variables: Standards and Order, Relationships, Anxiety, and Procrastination. It distinguishes between adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism. Both adaptive and maladaptive perfectionists rate high in Standards and Order, but maladaptive perfectionists also rate high in Anxiety and Procrastination[3].

Perfectionism is one of the 16 Personality Factors identified by Raymond Cattell. It may be related to Conscientiousness and Neuroticism in the Big Five personality traits.

Positive aspects

Perfectionism can drive people to accomplishments and provide the motivation to persevere in the face of discouragement and obstacles. Roedell (1984) argues that "in a positive form, perfectionism can provide the driving energy which leads to great achievement. The meticulous attention to detail necessary for scientific investigation, the commitment which pushes composers to keep working until the music realises the glorious sounds playing in the imagination, and the persistence which keeps great artists at their easels until their creation matches their conception all result from perfectionism."[4]

Slaney found that adaptive perfectionists had lower levels of procrastination than non-perfectionists. High-achieving athletes, scientists, and artists often show signs of perfectionism. For example, Michelangelo's perfectionism may have spurred him to create masterpieces such as David and the Sistine Chapel. Perfectionism is associated with giftedness in children.

Negative aspects

In its pathological form, perfectionism can be very damaging. It can take the form of procrastination when it is used to postpone tasks ("I can't start my project until I know the 'right' way to do it."), and self-depreciation when it is used to excuse poor performance or to seek sympathy and affirmation from other people ("I can't believe I don't know how to reach my own goals. I must be stupid; how else could I not be able to do this?").

In the workplace, perfectionism is often marked by low productivity as individuals lose time and energy on small irrelevent details of larger projects or mundane daily activities. This can lead to depression, alienated colleagues, and a greater risk of accidents [5]. Adderholt-Elliot (1989) describes five characteristics of perfectionist students and teachers which contribute to underachievement: procrastination, fear of failure, the all-or-nothing mindset, paralysed perfectionism, and workaholism[6]. In intimate relationships, unreal expectations can cause significant disatisfaction in both partners [7]. Perfectionists may sacrifice family and social activities in the quest for their impossible goals.

Perfectionists can suffer anxiety and low self-esteem. Perfectionism is a risk factor for obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders, and depression.

Therapists attempt to tackle the negative thinking that surrounds perfectionism, in particular the "all-or-nothing" thinking where the client believes that an achievement is either perfect or useless. They encourage clients to set realistic goals and to face their fear of failure.


Like most personality traits, perfectionism tends to run in families and probably has a genetic component. Parents who practise an authoritarian style combined with conditional love may contribute to perfectionism in their children[8]. Culture may play a role. In one study (Castro & Rice 2003), Asian-American students reported higher levels of perfectionism than did African-American or European-American students [9].

Perfectionism may be a legacy of our evolutionary past. Hominids who were motivated for prolonged, incremental improvement (perfectionism) could create better tools and this would provide significant survival advantages[10].

See also


  1. ^  Parker, W. D. & Adkins, K. K. (1994). Perfectionism and the gifted. Roeper Review, 17 (3), 173-176.
  2. ^  Hewitt and Flett (1991) The Perfectionistic Self-Presentation Scale
  3. ^  Slaney, Robert (1996) The Almost Perfect Definition
  4. ^  Roedell, W. C. (1984). Vulnerabilities of highly gifted children. Roeper Review, 6 (3), 127-130.
  5. ^ Perfectionism: Impossible Dream
  6. ^ Adderholt-Elliot, M. (1989). Perfectionism and underachievement. Gifted Child Today, 12 (1), 19-21.
  7. ^ The Perfectionist's Flawed Marriage
  8. ^ Perfectionism: Causes and Explanations
  9. ^ Castro JR & Rice KG (2003)Perfectionism and ethnicity
  10. ^ The Evolutionary Psychology of Perfectionism

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