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Perfectionism is on the rise – and we're all paying the cost
New research shows elevated risks of anxiety, depression, and suicide linked to perfectionism.
- A study of 41,641 college students shows that perfectionism is increasing year after year.
- Along with perfectionist tendencies, researchers noted a symmetrical rise in anxiety, depression, and suicide.
- The study looks not at parental influence, but at neoliberal policies that have fostered a cult of individualism.
Should we really be surprised by a study entitled, "Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time?" Though written in 2017, this research from Thomas Curran and Andrew P. Hill was recently republished by the American Psychological Association. Though previous surveys have mentioned "authenticity" as a defining feature of the target age group—millennials—it's hard to imagine an absence of mimicry given our social media environment.
This research is unique in approach. The team opens with a discussion of neoliberal governance being responsible for creating the conditions for rampant individualism to spread. An unchecked free market is placing undue stress on younger generations, forcing them to battle for screen space on a regular basis. Sleep becomes impossible when the entire planet is your schoolyard.
While the correlates and consequences of perfectionism are well-documented, the authors believe less research exists on the cultural conditions that fertilize it. Most research deals with parental and immediate environmental influences, not the governing economic and cultural forces. They consider perfectionism "a cultural phenomenon," and treat it as such.
"In its broadest sense, then, perfectionism can be understood to develop through the messages that young people internalize from their immediate social environments, the resulting view of themselves, especially how they construe self-worth and how it is established, and their sense of self in relation to others."
While this line of thought might be new to studies on perfectionism, differences between communal and individualist societies are understood. Better or worse is not the point of this work. Pressures associated with first thinking of yourself instead of your group have grave consequences on your mental health. Rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide are all increasing in this younger cohort.
The Problem With Perfectionism
The authors define perfectionism as "excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations." They employ a cross-temporal meta-analysis of American, Canadian, and British college students' replies to the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale. Totaling 41,641 students between 1989 and 2016, three types of perfectionism were considered:
- Self-oriented perfectionists are irrational in their self-importance while holding unrealistic expectations of themselves, punishing themselves when they can't meet their own self-imposed impossible standards.
- Socially prescribed perfectionists feel consistently and harshly judged by others, forcing them to seek approval at every turn.
- Other-oriented perfectionists impose unrealistic standards on everyone else and act out when these standards are not met.
Self-oriented perfectionism is considered the most complex. They base self-worth on achievements. Satisfaction never comes. Over the long run, clinical depression, eating disorders, and early death are a few of the results.
Socially prescribed perfectionism is the most debilitating, resulting in major bouts of anxiety and depression; it can lead to suicide when unchecked.
Other-oriented perfectionism is the least studied. Recent research ties it to higher levels of vindictiveness, hostility, and a tendency to blame others for, well, everything, but mostly for personal shortcomings. Low levels of altruism, compliance, and trust follow, as well as, in relationships, more fighting and less sexual satisfaction.
Curran and Hill attribute three cultural changes as catalysts for widespread increase in perfectionist tendencies:
- The emergence of neoliberalism and competitive individualism.
- The rise of the doctrine of meritocracy.
- Increasingly anxious and controlling parental practices.
In a neoliberal environment, levels of narcissism, extraversion, and self-confidence increase as communal traits spiral. Collectively, we've become less caring about the welfare of others, while blaming others has gone through the roof. Ironically, we didn't need a study for this. We only need Twitter.
These trends are apparent in influencer culture, where a premium is placed on experiences, many of which are fabricated to begin with. This glorification of experience is why recent generations spend more money on status possessions and image goods well above their parents and grandparents. Add a dash of FOMO for a toxic cocktail.
Worldwide Professional Bodybuilders during the Arnold Sports Festival Africa 2019 at Sandton Convention Centre on May 18, 2019 in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Photo by Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images/Getty Images
As we've known since biblical times (and likely before), more stuff equals less satisfaction. Our impatience with stuff translates into dissatisfaction with self. Cortisol boils.
"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."
One real-world example: The UK has experienced a 30 percent increase in body dysmorphia and eating disorders in young girls since the advent of social media.
In a meritocracy, those with the highest status and most possessions are treated as winners, though little information about their prior conditions is shared. We only see the lifestyle, not the trust fund; we don't know what clothing gets shipped back to the rack. A pompous display: those with less feel less deserving. Material wealth is too often linked with low self-esteem.
Not only is the schoolyard infected, but so is the classroom. Teens are being taught that an education is designed to make money, not to enrich their lives and deepen their knowledge. American society no longer rewards the culture it created—wage premiums associated with degrees have stagnated for the last 20 years—yet we're left with the mental weight of school as a means of financial success, or, as it goes, "getting ahead."
This translates into parents—part of the neoliberal, meritocratic groundswell—transferring their own failed expectations onto the shoulders of their children. The youth internalize these pressures. Parents spend far more time today than a few decades ago focusing on educational endeavors and far less time on leisure and hobbies.
"Should a young person be unable to navigate an increasingly competitive social milieu, then it is not just their failure, it is also the parents' failure too."
Interestingly, American students showed higher levels of self-oriented perfectionism and lower levels of socially prescribed perfectionism. This is, in part, due to shrinking budgets for communal-oriented funding faster than other countries. Regardless of geography, all three cohorts claim to be victims of demanding social expectations.
The kids are not alright. Neither are the parents.
It's always been nature and nurture. While parental influences are powerful, this research shows how forceful the weight of society is on our outlook. Just as anti-Semitism is rising in a populist-focused America, the endless barrage of people (seemingly) having more fun and stuff than you is taking its toll. The screen is a mirror of failed expectations and we're all paying the price.
Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.
- U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
- Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
- While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
The U.S. Navy controls patents for some futuristic and outlandish technologies, some of which, dubbed "the UFO patents," came to life recently. Of particular note are inventions by the somewhat mysterious Dr. Salvatore Cezar Pais, whose tech claims to be able to "engineer reality." His slate of highly-ambitious, borderline sci-fi designs meant for use by the U.S. government range from gravitational wave generators and compact fusion reactors to next-gen hybrid aerospace-underwater crafts with revolutionary propulsion systems, and beyond.
Of course, the existence of patents does not mean these technologies have actually been created, but there is evidence that some demonstrations of operability have been successfully carried out. As investigated and reported by The War Zone, a possible reason why some of the patents may have been taken on by the Navy is that the Chinese military may also be developing similar advanced gadgets.
Among Dr. Pais's patents are designs, approved in 2018, for an aerospace-underwater craft of incredible speed and maneuverability. This cone-shaped vehicle can potentially fly just as well anywhere it may be, whether air, water or space, without leaving any heat signatures. It can achieve this by creating a quantum vacuum around itself with a very dense polarized energy field. This vacuum would allow it to repel any molecule the craft comes in contact with, no matter the medium. Manipulating "quantum field fluctuations in the local vacuum energy state," would help reduce the craft's inertia. The polarized vacuum would dramatically decrease any elemental resistance and lead to "extreme speeds," claims the paper.
Not only that, if the vacuum-creating technology can be engineered, we'd also be able to "engineer the fabric of our reality at the most fundamental level," states the patent. This would lead to major advancements in aerospace propulsion and generating power. Not to mention other reality-changing outcomes that come to mind.
Among Pais's other patents are inventions that stem from similar thinking, outlining pieces of technology necessary to make his creations come to fruition. His paper presented in 2019, titled "Room Temperature Superconducting System for Use on a Hybrid Aerospace Undersea Craft," proposes a system that can achieve superconductivity at room temperatures. This would become "a highly disruptive technology, capable of a total paradigm change in Science and Technology," conveys Pais.
High frequency gravitational wave generator.
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
Another invention devised by Pais is an electromagnetic field generator that could generate "an impenetrable defensive shield to sea and land as well as space-based military and civilian assets." This shield could protect from threats like anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles that evade radar, coronal mass ejections, military satellites, and even asteroids.
Dr. Pais's ideas center around the phenomenon he dubbed "The Pais Effect". He referred to it in his writings as the "controlled motion of electrically charged matter (from solid to plasma) via accelerated spin and/or accelerated vibration under rapid (yet smooth) acceleration-deceleration-acceleration transients." In less jargon-heavy terms, Pais claims to have figured out how to spin electromagnetic fields in order to contain a fusion reaction – an accomplishment that would lead to a tremendous change in power consumption and an abundance of energy.
According to his bio in a recently published paper on a new Plasma Compression Fusion Device, which could transform energy production, Dr. Pais is a mechanical and aerospace engineer working at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), which is headquartered in Patuxent River, Maryland. Holding a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Pais was a NASA Research Fellow and worked with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. His current Department of Defense work involves his "advanced knowledge of theory, analysis, and modern experimental and computational methods in aerodynamics, along with an understanding of air-vehicle and missile design, especially in the domain of hypersonic power plant and vehicle design." He also has expert knowledge of electrooptics, emerging quantum technologies (laser power generation in particular), high-energy electromagnetic field generation, and the "breakthrough field of room temperature superconductivity, as related to advanced field propulsion."
Suffice it to say, with such a list of research credentials that would make Nikola Tesla proud, Dr. Pais seems well-positioned to carry out groundbreaking work.
A craft using an inertial mass reduction device.
Credit: Salvatore Pais
The patents won't necessarily lead to these technologies ever seeing the light of day. The research has its share of detractors and nonbelievers among other scientists, who think the amount of energy required for the fields described by Pais and his ideas on electromagnetic propulsions are well beyond the scope of current tech and are nearly impossible. Yet investigators at The War Zone found comments from Navy officials that indicate the inventions are being looked at seriously enough, and some tests are taking place.
If you'd like to read through Pais's patents yourself, check them out here.
Laser Augmented Turbojet Propulsion System
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
How imagining the worst case scenario can help calm anxiety.
- Stoicism is the philosophy that nothing about the world is good or bad in itself, and that we have control over both our judgments and our reactions to things.
- It is hardest to control our reactions to the things that come unexpectedly.
- By meditating every day on the "worst case scenario," we can take the sting out of the worst that life can throw our way.
Are you a worrier? Do you imagine nightmare scenarios and then get worked up and anxious about them? Does your mind get caught in a horrible spiral of catastrophizing over even the smallest of things? Worrying, particularly imagining the worst case scenario, seems to be a natural part of being human and comes easily to a lot of us. It's awful, perhaps even dangerous, when we do it.
But, there might just be an ancient wisdom that can help. It involves reframing this attitude for the better, and it comes from Stoicism. It's called "premeditation," and it could be the most useful trick we can learn.
Broadly speaking, Stoicism is the philosophy of choosing your judgments. Stoics believe that there is nothing about the universe that can be called good or bad, valuable or valueless, in itself. It's we who add these values to things. As Shakespeare's Hamlet says, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Our minds color the things we encounter as being "good" or "bad," and given that we control our minds, we therefore have control over all of our negative feelings.
Put another way, Stoicism maintains that there's a gap between our experience of an event and our judgment of it. For instance, if someone calls you a smelly goat, you have an opportunity, however small and hard it might be, to pause and ask yourself, "How will I judge this?" What's more, you can even ask, "How will I respond?" We have power over which thoughts we entertain and the final say on our actions. Today, Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
Helping you practice StoicismCredit: Robyn Beck via Getty Images
One of the principal fathers of ancient Stoicism was the Roman statesmen, Seneca, who argued that the unexpected and unforeseen blows of life are the hardest to take control over. The shock of a misfortune can strip away the power we have to choose our reaction. For instance, being burglarized feels so horrible because we had felt so safe at home. A stomach ache, out of the blue, is harder than a stitch thirty minutes into a run. A sudden bang makes us jump, but a firework makes us smile. Fell swoops hurt more than known hardships.
What could possibly go wrong?
So, how can we resolve this? Seneca suggests a Stoic technique called "premeditatio malorum" or "premeditation." At the start of every day, we ought to take time to indulge our anxious and catastrophizing mind. We should "rehearse in the mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck." We should meditate on the worst things that could happen: your partner will leave you, your boss will fire you, your house will burn down. Maybe, even, you'll die.
This might sound depressing, but the important thing is that we do not stop there.
Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
The Stoic also rehearses how they will react to these things as they come up. For instance, another Stoic (and Roman Emperor) Marcus Aurelius asks us to imagine all the mean, rude, selfish, and boorish people we'll come across today. Then, in our heads, we script how we'll respond when we meet them. We can shrug off their meanness, smile at their rudeness, and refuse to be "implicated in what is degrading." Thus prepared, we take control again of our reactions and behavior.
The Stoics cast themselves into the darkest and most desperate of conditions but then realize that they can and will endure. With premeditation, the Stoic is prepared and has the mental vigor necessary to take the blow on the chin and say, "Yep, l can deal with this."
Catastrophizing as a method of mental inoculation
Seneca wrote: "In times of peace, the soldier carries out maneuvers." This is also true of premeditation, which acts as the war room or training ground. The agonizing cut of the unexpected is blunted by preparedness. We can prepare the mind for whatever trials may come, in just the same way we can prepare the body for some endurance activity. The world can throw nothing as bad as that which our minds have already imagined.
Stoicism teaches us to embrace our worrying mind but to embrace it as a kind of inoculation. With a frown over breakfast, try to spend five minutes of your day deliberately catastrophizing. Get your anti-anxiety battle plan ready and then face the world.
A study on charity finds that reminding people how nice it feels to give yields better results than appealing to altruism.
- A study finds asking for donations by appealing to the donor's self-interest may result in more money than appealing to their better nature.
- Those who received an appeal to self-interest were both more likely to give and gave more than those in the control group.
- The effect was most pronounced for those who hadn't given before.
Even the best charities with the longest records of doing great fundraising work have to spend some time making sure that the next donation checks will keep coming in. One way to do this is by showing potential donors all the good things the charity did over the previous year. But there may be a better way.
A new study by researchers in the United States and Australia suggests that appealing to the benefits people will receive themselves after a donation nudges them to donate more money than appealing to the greater good.
How to get people to give away free money
The postcards that were sent to different study subjects. The one on the left highlighted benefits to the self, while the one on the right highlighted benefits to others.List et al. / Nature Human Behaviour
The study, published in Nature Human Behaviour, utilized the Pick.Click.Give program in Alaska. This program allows Alaska residents who qualify for dividends from the Alaska Permanent Fund, a yearly payment ranging from $800 to $2000 in recent years, to donate a portion of it to various in-state non-profit organizations.
The researchers randomly assigned households to either a control group or to receive a postcard in the mail encouraging them to donate a portion of their dividend to charity. That postcard could come in one of two forms, either highlighting the benefits to others or the benefits to themselves.
Those who got the postcard touting self-benefits were 6.6 percent more likely to give than those in the control group and gave 23 percent more on average. Those getting the benefits-to-others postcard were slightly more likely to give than those receiving no postcard, but their donations were no larger.
Additionally, the researchers were able to break the subject list down into a "warm list" of those who had given at least once before in the last two years and a "cold list" of those who had not. Those on the warm list, who were already giving, saw only minor increases in their likelihood to donate after getting a postcard in the mail compared to those on the cold list.
Additionally, the researchers found that warm-list subjects who received the self-interest postcard gave 11 percent more than warm-list subjects in the control group. Amazingly, among cold-list subjects, those who received a self-interest postcard gave 39 percent more.
These are substantial improvements. At the end of the study, the authors point out, "If we had sent the benefits to self message to all households in the state, aggregate contributions would have increased by nearly US$600,000."
To put this into perspective, in 2017 the total donations to the program were roughly $2,700,000.
Is altruism dead?
Are all actions inherently self-interested? Thankfully, no. The study focuses entirely on effective ways to increase charitable donations above levels that currently exist. It doesn't deny that some people are giving out of pure altruism, but rather that an appeal based on self-interest is effective. Plenty of people were giving before this study took place who didn't need a postcard as encouragement. It is also possible that some people donated part of their dividend check to a charity that does not work with Pick.Click.Give and were uncounted here.
It is also important to note that Pick.Click.Give does not provide services but instead gives money to a wide variety of organizations that do. Those organizations operate in fields from animal rescue to job training to public broadcasting. The authors note that it is possible that a more specific appeal to the benefits others will receive from a donation might prove more effective than the generic and all-inclusive "Make Alaska Better For Everyone" appeal that they used.
In an ideal world, charity is its own reward. In ours, it might help to remind somebody how warm and fuzzy they'll feel after donating to your cause.
The 'Monkeydactyl' was a flying reptile that evolved highly specialized adaptations in the Mesozoic Era.