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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.
Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT today.
Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
Reaching beyond the stereotypes of meditation and embracing the science of mindfulness.
- There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to what mindfulness is and what meditation can do for those who practice it. In this video, professors, neuroscientists, psychologists, composers, authors, and a former Buddhist monk share their experiences, explain the science behind meditation, and discuss the benefits of learning to be in the moment.
- "Mindfulness allows us to shift our relationship to our experience," explains psychologist Daniel Goleman. The science shows that long-term meditators have higher levels of gamma waves in their brains even when they are not meditating. The effect of this altered response is yet unknown, though it shows that there are lasting cognitive effects.
- "I think we're looking at meditation as the next big public health revolution," says ABC News anchor Dan Harris. "Meditation is going to join the pantheon of no-brainers like exercise, brushing your teeth and taking the meds that your doctor prescribes to you." Closing out the video is a guided meditation experience led by author Damien Echols that can be practiced anywhere and repeated as many times as you'd like.
A study looks at the performance benefits delivered by asthma drugs when they're taken by athletes who don't have asthma.
- One on hand, the most common health condition among Olympic athletes is asthma. On the other, asthmatic athletes regularly outperform their non-asthmatic counterparts.
- A new study assesses the performance-enhancement effects of asthma medication for non-asthmatics.
- The analysis looks at the effects of both allowed and banned asthma medications.
WADA uncertainty<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU0OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMDc4NjUwN30.fFTvRR0yJDLtFhaYiixh5Fa7NK1t1T4CzUM0Yh6KYiA/img.jpg?width=980" id="01b1b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2fd91a47d91e4d5083449b258a2fd63f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="urine sample for drug test" />
Image source: joel bubble ben/Shutterstock<p>When inhaled β-agonists first came out just before the 1972 Olympics, they were immediately banned altogether by the WADA as possible doping substances. Over the years, the WADA has reexamined their use and refined the organization's stance, evidence of the thorniness of finding an equitable position regarding their use. As of January 2020, only three β-agonists are allowed — salbutamol, formoterol, and salmeterol —and only in inhaled form. Oral consumption appears to have a greater effect on performance.</p>
The study<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTIzMDQyMX0.Gk4v-7PCA7NohvJjw12L15p7SumPCY0tLdsSlMrLlGs/img.jpg?width=980" id="d3141" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ebe7b30a315aeffcb4fe739095cf0767" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="runner at starting position on track" />
Image source: MinDof/Shutterstock<p>Of primary interest to the authors of the study is confirming and measuring the performance improvement to be gained from β-agonists when they're ingested by athletes who don't have asthma.</p><p>The researchers performed a meta-analysis of 34 existing studies documenting 44 randomized trials reporting on 472 participants. The pool of individuals included was broad, encompassing both untrained and elite athletes. In addition, lab tests, as opposed to actual competitions, tracked performance. The authors of the study therefore recommend taking its conclusions with just a grain of salt.</p><p>The effects of both WADA-banned and approved β-agonists were assessed.</p>
Approved β-agonists and non-asthmatic athletes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU1MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMzkxODk0M30.3RssFwk_tWkHRkEl_tIee02rdq2tLuAePifnngqcIr8/img.jpg?width=980" id="39a99" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b1fe4a580c6d4f8a0fd021d7d6570e2a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="vaulter clearing pole" />
Image source: Andrey Yurlov/Shutterstock<p>What the meta-analysis showed is that the currently approved β-agonists didn't significantly improve athletic performance among those without asthma — what very slight benefit they <em>may</em> produce is just enough to prompt the study's authors to write that "it is still uncertain whether approved doses improve anaerobic performance." They note that the tiny effect did increase slightly over multiple weeks of β-agonist intake.</p>
Banned β-agonist and non-asthmatic athletes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU1Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjI3ODU5Mn0.vyoxSE5EYjPGc2ZEbBN8d5F79nSEIiC6TUzTt0ycVqc/img.jpg?width=980" id="de095" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="02fdd42dfda8e3665a7b547bb88007ef" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="swimmer mid stroke" />
Image source: Nejron Photo/Shutterstock<p>The study found that for athletes without asthma, however, the use of currently banned β-agonists did indeed result in enhanced performance. The authors write, "Our meta-analysis shows that β2-agonists improve anaerobic performance by 5%, an improvement that would change the outcome of most athletic competitions."</p><p>That 5 percent is an average: 70-meter sprint performance was improved by 3 percent, while strength performance, MVC (maximal voluntary contraction), was improved by 6 percent.</p><p>The analysis also revealed that different results were produced by different methods of ingestion. The percentages cited above were seen when a β-agonist was ingested orally. The effect was less pronounced when the banned substances were inhaled.</p><p>Given the difference between the results for allowed and banned β-agonists, the study's conclusions suggest that the WADA has it about right, at least in terms of selection of allowable β-agonists, as well as the allowable dosage method.</p>