Friday, December 07, 2007

Perfectionism: devleopmental influences?

A recent Mind Hacks post, and a comment by John Bunch there, set me thinking, regarding whether perfectionism could have a developmental genesis. Perfectionism , like other personality traits, would likely be having both genetic and environmental factors contributing ti its development. So, before proceeding further, I would like to list the factors of perfectionism as identified in a recent study by Frost et al, they are:

  1. Excessive concern over making mistakes
  2. The doubting of quality of one's actions
  3. High personal standards
  4. Perception of high parental expectations and criticisms
  5. A preference for order and organization

To me they present in a nice order on the five developmental factors related to trust (whether mistakes will be tolerated or not), Autonomy vs shame and doubt(doubting quality of one's actions), Initiative vs guilt (setting high standards to avoid guilt), industry vs inferiority(judging oneself by perceived parental standards) and finally Identity vs role confusion (having order and organization in life to relive the role confusion). Thus, all the perfectionist traits are a result of some deficient achieving of a developmental milestone - especially in relation to goal pursuing.

Here I come to my second theme- the comment by John Bunch, tries to draw fascinating parallels between the need to avoid mistakes in Perfectionists and the avoidance of risks in Passive Aggressives - and relates both of them to Carol Dwecks work with parsing and installing in children a fixed, entity like belief of personality and intelligence versus a growth mindset that has room for improvements and change. It is worthwhile here to recount Carol Dwecks experiments in which her team found that those children who had fixed, entity like view of intelligence gave up earlier on solving difficult tasks , avoided hard tests, weer more concerned with their image and projecting a good face than in learning - and one can easily see that these are seed for the later perfectionist traits of fear of mistakes, perceived high expectations and criticisms of parents etc. Similarly in Passive Aggressives this translates into risk avoidance - different mechanism chosen, due to underlying genetic temperaments, but to the same environmental stimuli of the fixed intelligence or talent myth installation.

By the way, the five factors of Perfectionsim can also be construed in terms of the big five factors -

  1. Neuroticism (cognitive)- worry over mistakes.
  2. Conscientiousness (motivational)- high and unrealistic standards
  3. Extraversion (behavioural) - doubt over actions
  4. Agreeableness (social)- perceived criticism and expectations
  5. Openness (exploratory) - organization and order

I would love to hear more comments on this developmental theory of perfectionism. A quick search on Google revealed a promising dissertation that links perfectionism to helpless explanatory style which fits with Dwecks theory.

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