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Perfectionism: Topical Research Series #3

Historically, there has been a commonly held belief that highly gifted youths were more likely to exhibit perfectionism than other students, and that this perfectionism was in some way a negative trait. Some empirical research supported this stereotype; research linked perfectionism with a variety of negative outcomes including depression, suicide, eating disorders, personality disorders, and other clinical symptoms. More recently however, researchers have questioned two assumptions fundamental to this belief. First, researchers asked, are gifted individuals really more perfectionistic than others? Second, researchers questioned whether or not perfectionism is in fact unitary, pathological construct, or if perfectionism is better understood in terms of two discrete components: healthy perfectionism and unhealthy perfectionism.

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth (CTY) have been studying perfectionism in gifted students from multiple perspectives, using the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale (MPS), a scale designed to tap several components of perfectionism. The articles contained in this Topical Research Series represent a diverse sample of that work, including studies looking at: the prevalence of perfectionism in gifted students, the typology of perfectionism, and relations between perfectionism and family characteristics.

The first article, The Incidence of Perfectionism in Gifted Students by Parker and Mills (1996), looked at the incidence of perfectionism in a group of intellectually gifted sixth grade students, compared to a group of their average achieving peers. The findings indicated that there were few differences between the academically talented sixth grade students and the comparison group on measures of perfectionism. The researchers interpreted the findings as an indication that encouraging high standards for gifted children does not encourage the development of destructive forms of perfectionism. In addition, the authors introduce the notion that there is more than one kind of perfectionism, a healthy perfectionism, and an unhealthy perfectionism. The second paper of this Topical Series explores this assertion.

In the paper, An Empirical Typology of Perfectionism in Academically Talented Children by Parker (1997), a cluster analysis of the MPS allowed researchers to look at the existence of more than one type of perfectionism. The results yielded three distinct groups representing: a non-perfectionistic type, a healthy perfectionistic type, and a dysfunctional perfectionistic type. Students classified as 'non-perfectionistic' did not reveal any perfectionistic tendencies. These students were more likely to describe themselves as disorganized, distractable, and as having broad interests. Students classified as 'healthy perfectionistic' endorsed items reflecting organization and high personal standards. These students did not endorse items reflecting excessive concern about mistakes, doubts, or parental criticism. On another personality measure, these students tended to describe themselves as agreeable, extroverted, and conscientious. Students in the third group, 'dysfunctional perfectionistic,' scored the highest (on the MPS) on items reflecting excessive concern over mistakes, perceived parental criticism, and doubts about actions. Self-descriptions of these students, on a separate personality measure, included being anxious and disagreeable. Overall, approximately 30% of students were classified as non-perfectionistic, 42% were classified as healthy perfectionistic, and 28% were classified as dysfunctional perfectionistic. This finding confirmed early beliefs of CTY researchers that the majority of academically talented students have either non-perfectionistic or health perfectionism tendencies. The author suggests that further research explore the influence of parental expectations on perfectionism. The final paper included in this Topical Series discusses relations between parental beliefs and student perfectionism.

In Parents' Achievement Goals and Perfectionism in Their Academically Talented Children by Ablard and Parker (1997) , researchers examined the relation between the achievement-related goals parents have for their children, and the children's self-reports of perfectionism on the MPS in sixth grade. The findings indicated that overall, most parents of academically talented children view learning and personal intellectual growth as more important than getting high grades and scoring highly on tests and exams. Children of parents who reported adopting a performance goal orientation (focus on high grades and test scores) were more likely to be considered dysfunctional perfectionists than children of parents who adopted a learning goal orientation. Children of parents who reported adopting a learning goal orientation were more likely to be considered non-perfectionists. Clear patterns did not emerge for healthy perfectionistic children. Overall, there appears to be some relation between the goals parents have for their children, and children's level and type of perfectionism. This study points to several promising avenues for further study of the possible roles of parental beliefs in the development of gifted children's perfectionism. The relations between parental beliefs and perfectionism need further exploration.

The papers included in this Topical Series represent only a fraction of the research that has been done examining perfectionism in gifted students. For example, other studies conducted by CTY researchers have addressed the validity of the MPS, the incidence of perfectionism in college students, relations between perfectionism and other personality traits, and in-depth statistical exploration of the MPS and related measures. Overall, this body of research suggests that the assumption that gifted children tend to exhibit more perfectionism, and that this perfectionism is in some way pathological, is not warranted. Evidence from these studies suggests instead that gifted students are no more likely to be considered perfectionistic than their more average achieving peers. Additionally, these studies provide empirical support for a definition of perfectionism which allows for two distinct and independent components: healthy perfectionism and dysfunctional perfectionism. Finally, the last of these studies indicates that better understanding of the origins of perfectionism might be possible from in-depth study of parental beliefs. For that sub-population of students who do exhibit signs of dysfunctional perfectionism, it will be important to better understand the predictors, so that we can intervene in an effective manner to prevent potential negative developmental outcomes.

Complete references and abstracts are available.


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