Perfectionists get things done, right? They’re more detail-oriented, meticulous, and effective than the rest of us—or so we’ve been led to believe. But new research out of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, published in the open-access online journal PLOS ONE, has upended that longstanding myth: When put to the test, perfectionists don’t actually work harder than the rest of us. They just agonize more internally about the outcome.
For every deadline achieved, what you don’t see in a perfectionist is the complicated critical self-talk that accompanies his or her every move. Rachel Randall, an editor in Ohio who has identified as a perfectionist for as long as she can remember, says, “Perfectionism is an awareness that everything I do is a reflection of me, not just professionally, but as a person.” While her colleagues and boss likely see only the productive side of her that gets things done, internally, she tells herself, “I beat myself up a lot over simple things. Mistakes that anyone could make.”
Negative self-talk is a common behavior of perfectionists, according to psychologist Robin Hornstein, Ph.D., of Philadelphia, who says, “Perfectionists have a drive that is beyond most people’s capacity, including their own.” This naturally leads to beliefs such as, “It can be better than this,” “I am not good enough,” “I cannot make this happen,” and “I am bad.” These kinds of thoughts don’t necessarily lead to working harder than others.
The UNC study bears this out. Based on past research that suggests adaptive perfectionism is associated with higher effort, researchers hypothesized that people who self-described as perfectionists would exhibit increased effort on the task. They recruited 111 college students to take the MPS (Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale) and a self-paced task where they received a small cash reward for each correct answer. The participants were hooked up to an electrocardiogram device to test their cardiac activity as they performed their tasks.
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