New Study Examines the Effects of Cultural Perfectionism

Perfectionism has been linked to both positive and negative mental health outcomes. Women who strive to meet high levels of unattainable physical perfectionism may be at increased risk for disordered eating and body image problems. In contrast, academic perfectionism can help a disadvantaged student surmount obstacles that would otherwise prevent him or her from achieving educational success. Although there are many studies that have looked at the role perfectionism plays in the psychological well-being of adults, few studies have looked at how cultural differences influence perfectionism in college students. In addition, even fewer studies have focused on how specific types of perfectionism affect the students academically and emotionally. To address this gap, Audrey A. Elion of the Department of Counselor Education, Counseling Psychology and Rehabilitation Services at Pennsylvania State University led a study that examined the self-esteem, depression, racial identity, and GPA of 219 African American students attending universities made up of mostly white students.

Elion compared students from a southern university to students from a mid-Atlantic university and found significant differences. Using adaptive, maladaptive, and nonperfectionist classifications, Elion discovered that the students at the southern university had higher levels of maladaptive perfectionism than those in the mid-Atlantic university. Even though they represented a larger percentage of the student body than their northern peers, the southern students had elevated levels of depression and lower levels of self-esteem. They did not set their standards as high as the northern students either. Elion believes that the underlying racial tension that still exists in the south may lead these students to believe that they are not as capable, or as good as, their white peers. This leads to an exclusive type of adaptive mechanism, rather than an inclusive mechanism as demonstrated by the students in the northern university. Elion said, “A speculative explanation would be that as African American individuals hold a more mature racial identity worldview, they have higher self-esteem (Vandiver et al., 2002) that is also associated with setting higher standards.” Overall, the students with the most adaptive perfectionist traits exhibited the highest levels of academic, emotional, and racial identification well-being. These findings could help counselors and advisors working with racial minority students, as all of the factors explored here are critical to the overall social and emotional success of each student.

Elion, A. A., Wang, K. T., Slaney, R. B., French, B. H. (2012). Perfectionism in African American students: Relationship to racial identity, GPA, self-esteem, and depression. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 18.2, 118-127.

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  • Mina


    May 17th, 2012 at 3:34 PM

    My parents, who are Japanese, have always held very high personal and academic standards for me and my two brothers.
    When I was younger I never felt like I would be able to measure up to what they wanted me to be, and that hurt me I would say as a student.
    But as I have gotten older I have come to appreciate the fact that they set high standards for us. They did it so that we would learn and achieve in a way that they were never given the opportunity to do.
    I know that maybe I will not be quite as hard on my own children as they were on us. But we turned out pretty ok, so who knows? Maybe I will.

  • Nicola


    May 17th, 2012 at 11:58 PM

    While perfectionist expectation from parents is evident in some cultures when it comes to academics,I certainly believe it creates pressure for the child in his growin up years and will only be counter productive in the long run.

    After all, the child would rather be a happy photographer or painter than being a part of the corporate world because his parents expect him to!

  • Maddie


    May 18th, 2012 at 4:13 AM

    It seems to me that there are some cultures for whom self esteem and confidence are not as big of a problem as it is for other Western cultures. I don’t know if they build up their children more or if there are some other underlying issues which cause it, but I have seemn many other kids from other cultures who handle the stress and pressure to be perfect by their parents and communities in a much healthier way than our American kids do. Maybe it is all about a cultural thing and that is something that we should look at closely.

  • bryce lo

    bryce lo

    May 19th, 2012 at 7:42 AM

    Think about this: if a student is getting a lot of pressure at home about doing things right, prefect, then think about what kind of pressure this puts on someone who already feels like they don’t measure up. If the kid is already feeling this then what good is it going to do for a pareent to continue berating him for not doing his best? For me, if my child is giving 100% and still performing only average, then why not accept that this is his best and be alright with that?

  • jasmine


    May 20th, 2012 at 6:00 AM

    No one is perfect nor should they made to feel like they have to be perfect to have your love. If that’s how you are driven to make your child feel, then I seriously wish that you would have reconsidered having children. Just because someone did that to you does not give you the right to treat someone else the same exact way. Aren’t you just giving back what someone so cruelly bestowed upon you?

  • Holden


    May 21st, 2012 at 5:15 PM

    Were the northern schools nationally considered to be more exclusive schools than the ones in the south? If so that could be part of the explanation for why those students felt better about themselves and had more confidence that their southern counterparts.

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