Striving For Perfection, Rather Than Excellence, Can Kill Creativity

By Emily Reynolds

Perfectionism can be a useful trait: striving always to do better, perfectionists may be more likely to thrive academically or accomplish other achievements. But it comes with downsides, too: links with suicidal ideation, burnout, and reduced engagement at work.

One common critique of perfectionism is that it kills creativity, and it’s this question Jean-Christophe Goulet-Pelletier and team from the University of Ottawa, Ontario, explore in a paper in the British Journal of Psychology. They find that shooting for greatness, rather than perfection, can lead to higher creativity and increased openness to experience.

Participants in the first study were 279 Canadian undergraduate students. After sharing demographic data, they completed measures of perfectionism and excellencism (the striving for excellence, rather than perfection). Participants were shown statements about their goals, with some reflecting perfectionism (“My goal at school is to be exceptionally productive all the time”) and some excellencism (“My goal is to perform very well”), rating how much they agreed with them on a scale from one to seven.

Next, their creativity was tested with a “divergent thinking” measure. Participants were asked to come up with as many creative answers as they could to several questions, including “tell us the different ways you could use a newspaper” and “name all the things you can think of that make noise”. Finally, they completed a scale measuring openness to experience, which included questions about imagination, interest in art, emotionality, adventurousness, intellect, and liberalism.

The results revealed that the more participants strove for excellence, the greater originality and openness to experience they showed. In contrast, the more perfectionist participants were, the fewer original ideas they had and the less open to experience they were. This suggests that an element of flexibility not present in perfectionism can improve our creative thinking.

The second study involved 401 participants, again Canadian undergraduates. As in the first experiment, excellencism and perfectionism were measured, along with divergent thinking and openness to experience. General self-efficacy was recorded through agreement or disagreement with statements like “I will be able to achieve most of the goals that I have set for myself”, while creative self-efficacy and creative personal identity were measured through statements such as “I trust my creative abilities” and “My creativity is important to who I am”.

Participants also took part in two extra tests. In the first, an association test, participants were given a word and asked to create a chain in which each word can be related to the previous word but not the others. If you started with the word “summer”, to use the team’s example, a chain could be “beach, sand, castle, knight, horse, race”. The second was a dissociation task. This takes the format of the association task, but asks participants to create a chain of words completely unrelated from one another (e.g. “summer, computer, banana, bicycle”).

Again, excellencism was a strong predictor of openness and originality, with perfectionism predicting lower scores on these measures. Those who strove for excellence also did better on the association and dissociation tasks, while perfectionists performed worse. However, there was no significant difference between excellencists and perfectionists on general self-efficacy, creative self-efficacy, and creative personal identity, suggesting that people may not recognise their creativity is being inhibited by their perfectionism.

Much of the study suggests that striving for perfection can prove less positive than perfectionists would like, with those looking merely for excellence faring better overall. Future research could explore how to swap toxic perfectionism for excellencism — but in the meantime, contemplating how to deal with failure, and how it can even be productive, may be worth some time.

Is perfectionism a killer of creative thinking? A test of the model of excellencism and perfectionism

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest

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