My guest today, Thomas Curran, is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychological and Behavioral Science at the London School of Economics. He’s one of the world’s experts on the topic of perfectionism. Lots of people call themselves perfectionists, and they wear that label as a badge of honor. But the research done by Thomas and others that he describes in his brand new book, The Perfection Trap, tells a very different story.
CURRAN: This idea that perfectionism is a positive, somehow adaptive trait, just isn’t supported by the scientific evidence.
Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire, with Steve Levitt.
This is a subject that I have not thought very much about before, in part because I’ve never personally considered myself a perfectionist. I’ve really enjoyed the book, but I can also say I was somewhat skeptical of some of the arguments. I hope that Thomas is up for my challenges.
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LEVITT: A perfectionist writing a book on perfectionism — can I just say that sounds like a recipe for disaster. Did things go as badly as I imagined they would when you tried to write this book?
CURRAN: Oh, total catastrophe. It was two years over due date; I think my editor by the end of it was ready to retire. But no, in all seriousness, it’s a really difficult process writing a book at the best of times, but being a bit of a perfectionist myself, even tougher. You just want it to be perfect. You want it to go out into the world bulletproof so that nobody can criticize or pick holes in your arguments. And of course, that takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of energy, a lot of iteration, editing, not quite being satisfied with the finished product ever. But it’s out there into the world. And I’m coming to terms with the fact that it is not a perfect book, but it’s a good enough book and that’s okay.
LEVITT: In my experience, there are few things that have made me feel more vulnerable and exposed than handing off a book manuscript that I’ve just written. I invest so much time creating it. I fall in love with it. But I can’t tell even when I’m done whether people are going to like it or hate it. It’s an awful feeling to be exposed in that way.
CURRAN: It’s really tough, especially these days, because almost as soon as you send that manuscript off and they get it into print, there’s going to be someone on the internet who’s going to write a review, give you a star rating. And most of the time it’s great, but some of the time it isn’t, and it’s almost instant feedback. And that’s really tough.
LEVITT: Well, there is another approach. Just don’t look at the feedback. Don’t go on Amazon and read the one-star reviews. It’s hard to do, but I would think for someone who’s sensitive, that’s got to be the right approach to it. I’m not that sensitive. I don’t mind it when people criticize me, but for people who don’t like to be criticized, my God, close your eyes and your ears and everything’s fine.
CURRAN: But when you’re doing anything for the first time, it’s always a bit of a step into the unknown. And of course, you really want to know how it’s landing. So it’s so tempting to try to pick out the feedback, trying to work out what’s landed, what hasn’t, but you’re absolutely right. Particularly in this age where you’re just bombarded with so much feedback, it’s probably best to take the approach of just don’t look.
LEVITT: Many people listening to this podcast probably have some positive associations with perfectionism. The listeners are a pretty high achieving bunch of folks, and I suspect many of them would consider themselves perfectionists. You and the other psychologists who study the topic paint perfectionism in a very different, almost wholly negative light. Could you talk about that?
CURRAN: There’s definitely a lay belief, conventional wisdom, that perfectionism is the secret to success. I suppose we know there’s baggage, we understand that pushing ourselves well beyond comfort will obviously have some drawbacks. But on the other hand, isn’t necessary for success in a world which is really tough, really competitive, and very difficult to get ahead? In the book what I’m trying to argue is that that is a myth. When you look at the relationship between perfectionism and performance, you find very weak to non-existent associations. And not only do you not get the success benefits of these perfectionistic drives, but also you get a lot of significant mental distress and things like anxiety, depression, low mood, self harm, and, in extreme cases, thoughts of suicide. All these things are positively correlated with perfectionistic tendencies. So it’s a lot of mental distress for absolutely no performance gain. And so that’s why those who work in the area of perfectionism have come to the conclusion that this is a universally negative trait.
LEVITT: Let’s lay out how the psychologists define and catalog perfectionism. Because it isn’t simple or obvious, and even after reading up on it, I have a pretty tenuous grasp of the concept. There are these three different flavors of perfectionism. Maybe you could describe them one by one?
CURRAN: So over many decades, two researchers, Paul Hewitt and Gordon Flett, just talked to perfectionistic people. They asked them: what are the behaviors, thoughts, feelings that go along with your perfectionism? In hundreds and hundreds of such interactions, they began to see that perfectionism was a really quite broad personality characteristic underpinned by feelings of lack and deficit, a sense that I’m not perfect enough, and that I need to move around the world concealing and hiding my imperfections from other people to, in some sense, perfect my imperfect self. And that can be expressed in many different ways. The first way is through what’s called “self-oriented perfectionism,” and that’s an intense internal drive and need to be perfect, and nothing but perfect.
LEVITT: How do you figure out whether you have self-oriented perfectionism? What’s the approach to identifying that trait?
CURRAN: The approach is a very simple paper and pencil questionnaire. There’s a psychological measure called the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale, which taps into self-oriented perfectionistic tendencies. It’s useful, I think, to think about these tendencies as a spectrum. So the way that we measure them is whether one tends high or low or more or less in the middle of these tendencies. And that’s pretty much typical of how we measure all personality characteristics. And with those types of scales we can see whether they correlate or associate with other outcomes that might be hypothetically associated with perfectionism, like anxiety and depression for instance.
LEVITT: So on self-oriented, the questions you ask there are things like, “If I screw up or fall short, I’m hard on myself. If I do not appear or perform perfectly, I feel a lot of guilt and shame.” I asked my family members these questions and two of my four roughly college-age kids self-identified as self-oriented perfectionists. And consistent with what you’re saying, they both clearly viewed it as a burden. They both wish they didn’t feel that way, that it wasn’t helping them, it was just causing them pain.
CURRAN: Yeah, and that’s the thing about self-oriented perfectionism. It does contain a lot of what we might ostensibly consider to be really adaptive properties — high drive and internal desire to be perfect and shoot for really high standards. But the real issue is that there is an inability within self-oriented perfectionism to derive any lasting satisfaction from any accomplishment, because essentially what self-oriented perfectionism keeps us doing is looking in a forward direction and never allows us to savor, never allows us to acknowledge and appreciate what we have achieved. Yes, we did well, for instance, on a certain occasion and, yes, that provides us with a certain amount of pride. But it’s very fleeting. I’m always thinking about the next thing and how much better we could be doing and that’s really the trap of perfection, in essence. That no matter what we do, we always expect ourselves to do more. And we also think that people think that, too. If we set a new floor for our own achievement, we’ve got to do more the next time. And that’s why it’s so problematic.
LEVITT: Okay, second flavor of perfectionism is what’s called “socially-prescribed.” What’s that all about?
CURRAN: So socially-prescribed is the second element of perfectionism that Paul and Gord identified, and this is very much perfectionism rooted in perceptions of the outside world and people in our social circles, but also people more generally. And it’s this idea that everybody expects me to be perfect — so not only do I expect myself to be perfect, but when I look out into the world I see people watching, judging, waiting to pounce if I’ve shown a shortcoming, a flaw, or I failed. And so socially-prescribed perfectionists are very hypersensitive to other people’s validation and approval. And they’re very keen to conceal and disguise their shortcomings from the world because, essentially, the moment they reveal any weakness, they feel like they’re being judged. So socially-prescribed perfectionism is very much rooted in perfectionism coming from the outside.
LEVITT: So a couple of the questions on the survey that help identify socially-prescribed perfectionism, one is: “When I slip up or fall short, people are right there waiting to criticize me.” Another one is: “Everyone else is perfect, and they’re judging me if I’m not perfect too.”
CURRAN: Yeah, this is perhaps the most extreme form of perfectionism. It’s certainly the form of perfectionism most strongly correlated with those serious mental health outcomes. And that’s because when you move around the world trying to be perfect in every possible way, just so that other people don’t see and other people don’t criticize, then really there’s no psychological space in that world for us to make any mistakes, hit setbacks, hit challenge, fail. And so they’re hypersensitive to failure, hyper-aware of how they’re looking relative to other people, and that’s really an exhausting way to go through life.
LEVITT: So none of my kids, when I asked them, felt like this phenomenon described them generally, but what I found fascinating is that my son, who was a world-class fencer as a teen — he was one of the top 10 or 15 kids in his age group in the United States — he felt that way about fencing once he got good. He loved fencing when he was just an average fencer. And as soon as he got good, he just became consumed by exactly what you’re describing as socially-prescribed perfectionism. And it was so bad that even though he was one of the top fencers in the country; it was his ticket to a scholarship to a top university; it was his chance to represent the country, to be on the national team, he just walked away. That’s how bad it was for him.
CURRAN: Yeah, these pressures can be so intense and you see them a lot in high-profile figures too. People who’ve made it through some really difficult selection criteria tend to find themselves in the spotlight because that’s where everybody’s looking. That’s where everybody’s watching. And it’s a lot of pressure and expectation. And of course, especially when you go from doing something for fun, of love, of joy, of the sport, and then suddenly you’re propelled into this competitive world where the outcomes are so important and the challenge is really high, then those pressures can really ratchet up. And a lot of people discuss socially-prescribed pressures, and they’re particularly intense the higher you go.
LEVITT: So the last flavor of perfectionism is what is called other-oriented perfectionism. Tell me about that.
CURRAN: So other-oriented perfectionism is perfectionism that’s turned outwards onto other people. And the psychology here is really interesting because if you’re putting yourself through the ringer, if you’re expecting yourself to shoot for excessively high standards and you’re highly self-critical when you haven’t met those standards, well then it’s only fair that other people experience those same pressures too. And so other-oriented perfectionists really expect everyone and all around them to uphold an excessively high standard and are really critical of them when they haven’t met those standards. So if they put in a subpar performance, for instance, then the other-oriented perfectionist will be very critical about that performance and they’ll certainly let them know. It’s the least well researched, but what we do know about it is it has significant problems in the relational context — both personal relationships, but also relationships at work because, of course, those kinds of pressures, those kinds of expectations, are not really conducive to harmonious relationships.
LEVITT: An example of the questions that identify this trait: “When someone close to me screws up or falls short, it’s important to call them out.” Another one is: “I find it difficult to tolerate substandard performances from those around me.” Now, as I read those questions out loud to my kids, they’re all shaking their heads and saying, “No, that’s not me at all.” But I noticed my wife, who I hadn’t been paying much attention to, she was nodding her head in agreement to all of the other-oriented perfectionism questions. And what I found interesting was that, unlike my kids, who clearly suffer under the self-oriented and socially-prescribed versions, my wife isn’t at all bothered by having the other-oriented version. It just makes perfect sense to her that she should feel that way. Do the data support that conclusion generally? That other oriented perfectionists — the people around them might suffer, but they don’t suffer so much psychologically?
CURRAN: Yeah, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that actually other-oriented perfectionism stands alone from the other two. Whereas, for instance, if you had high self-oriented, you’re probably likely to have quite a lot of socially too, and vice versa. But other-oriented can tend to stand alone in this respect, and there’s a lot of data to suggest that’s the case. But I would say what you’ve identified here is probably the most interesting thing, actually, about perfectionism in that there’s no really one-size-fits-all. Every perfectionistic person is different from every other perfectionistic person. And how different they are depends on where they sit on the various spectrums of those three elements of perfectionism. And that’s the most difficult thing about perfectionism because no one perfectionistic person looks alike.
LEVITT: When people hear the word perfectionism, I think they have an intuitive notion of what it means. It implies unusual attention to detail, along with a sense that maybe there’s too much focus on little things, on minutiae, so that perfectionists don’t get as much done, or they miss big insights. But that simple, intuitive definition is very far from the formal definition that the psychologists are using, which is far more complex and subtle. It’s got all these nuances. Do you see that as a problem at all?
CURRAN: I wouldn’t necessarily argue that there is more complexity. I think what you’ve identified there — when you’re talking about meticulousness, attention to detail, and a focus on the small things — is certainly a part of perfectionism. But those things on their own are not perfectionism. They might be conscientiousness, meticulousness, diligence. Perfectionism is a lot deeper than just having high standards. It’s really a way of existing. It’s a feeling of deficit, of not being perfect enough. And yes, from that place of deficit comes high standards to try to overcompensate for the things that we think we lack. But on top of that comes a lot of insecurity. And the way I try to describe it in the book is perfectionism is really insecurity grafted to high standards. And the way that it’ss expressed of course can come in many different ways, but it’s really that rooted sense of lack and deficit which creates insecurity which, fused to high standards, is what makes perfectionism.
LEVITT: I guess what I’m struggling with is that it feels to me like what you’re calling perfectionism is an incredibly important trait, but not actually what we have in mind, regular people, when we use the word perfectionism. It’s almost like what you’re identifying is excess sensitivity to failure or perceived failure, and that is an incredibly costly psychological trait to carry around with you. I’m probably completely wrong, but it feels to me almost like the psychologists have taken this other thing, which is excess sensitivity to failure, and called it perfectionism. And it almost feels to me like that’s clouding the issue rather than clarifying it.
CURRAN: I’m not sure that’s the case. If you go back many, many decades to when clinicians were wrestling with psychological problems that were being presented to them in their therapy rooms, one of the things that was observed time and time again was a disconnection between how one considered what you might say is their real self, how they really felt, and the self that they had to project into the world to conform to societal norms. And many master clinicians — Karen Horney, Albert Ellis, and others — identified back then that this disconnect, this way of having to project ourselves into the world, trying to emulate an idealized image of ourselves, was at the root of a lot of neurosis, a lot of psychological problems among patients. This was the early clinical descriptions of perfectionism and it’s rooted in a sense of lack; an aversion to showing any form of weakness or deficiency, because we’re trying all the time to emulate this idealized version of ourselves that we want other people to see. And bridging the gap between that imperfect person we are and the perfect person we’re trying to be was what perfectionism was doing. That’s what perfectionism was. It was really trying to prove to other people that we’re not this deficient, defective person. And so when we talk about the sensitivity to failure — well, yes, perfectionists are hypersensitive to failure because their whole existence really is bound up in this idea that they’re not good enough, that they’re not perfect enough, and that they’re trying to be somebody perfect, in order to soothe those — I guess you’d call them shame-based fears of not being enough. That’s what, in essence, perfectionism is. I’m not really sure it’s a redefinition of hypersensitivity to failure. I think it’s its own standalone characteristic with many, many decades of clinical insight and academic research to support it.
We’ll be right back with more of my conversation with psychologist Thomas Curran after this short break.
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LEVITT: I remember when I was getting to know Danny Kahneman many years ago, he was one of the founders of behavioral economics — I was shocked that he was such a terrible decision maker in his own life. He had spent decades creating the field of behavioral economics and he fell prey to every single decision-making mistake his research had ever exposed. And I said to him, “Danny, how can you do such great research in behavioral economics and still make so many basic mistakes in your choices?” And he said, “You have the causality backwards. I do good research in behavioral economics precisely because I’m such a terrible decision maker.” Do you think that your own perfectionist tendencies have helped you doing research on the subject?
CURRAN: My own perfectionistic predisposition, I suppose you could call it, has certainly helped me understand better what this looks like and how it interfaces with the real world. Absolutely. And actually it’s been really interesting having understood perfectionism better and being in a better place to manage it and remove some of its worst excesses has also shown me that you can be just as successful, if not more successful, when you are able to sand away the harsher edges of perfectionism and accept that you are going to be an imperfect scholar, and that’s okay — that actually embracing that means that you can take more chances, you can be more creative, and you can actually do better research projects. And I would certainly say my most influential paper came from when I just decided that I was going to try to do something I’d never done before, go out on a limb, and just do a research project. “Is perfectionism rising over time?” is a really simple basic question that would have scared me off in the early age of academic career because I just wouldn’t know where to start with that, but having let go of some of those tendencies, it was a challenge rather than a threat.
LEVITT: Let’s talk about prevalence over time because that’s really one of the things that makes this topic so interesting — is that it’s exploding, right?
CURRAN: Well, I should say, one element of perfectionism exploding, and that’s socially-prescribed perfectionism. Self-oriented and other-oriented perfectionism are on the rise. We see that in the data among young people. But it’s the socially-prescribed perfectionism that’s exploding. And it’s on an exponential curve that’s going to rise very quickly into present day and into the future.
LEVITT: Now just make sure I understand — so when you say it’s rising, that implies that we asked young people 20, 30, 40 years ago the same set of questions we’re asking today, and their answers are changing. Is that what you mean when you say that it’s exploding?
CURRAN: If you look at that distribution in the late 1980s, and then you compare it to the distribution into the present day, you’ll see that average part of the spectrum is moving upwards. The people in the present day, young people in the present day, will score on average higher levels of perfectionism than they did in the late 80s. And given the nature of that increase, what we call an exponential curve, that’s growing really fast and will continue to get faster, left unchecked, as we move forward into the future. So that’s how we know perfectionism is increasing because we’re able to compare distributions across time.
LEVITT: Let’s talk about why perfectionism is rising. “Why” is always a harder question than measurement and knowing that it is rising. Social media gets blamed for just about everything these days. It does seem like a logical villain here.
CURRAN: Actually there’s a lot of circumstantial evidence that social media is certainly a culprit because the trend for socially-prescribed perfectionism really starts to inflect around 2007, 2008, which just so happens to be the time Apple released the first iPhone and the social media platforms came into our lives 24/7. I don’t think there’s any doubt that the images and moving pictures of perfection and perfect lives and lifestyles that are projected to us all the time are having an impact on levels of social expectations to be perfect. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. But one of the things I try to do in the book is zoom out a little bit and try to ask the deeper question about, “Why is it social media platforms create algorithms that push those images and moving pictures into our lives 24/7? What’s the incentive structures?” And the incentives, of course, is that it’s profitable to keep people online, engaged, keep sucking in our attention and, importantly, our spending through the deployment of targeted ads, which is the major revenue stream for these platforms. So that aura of discontent, that aura of not being quite perfect enough, and “here’s a material solution, a targeted ad, to bridge that gap again between the kind of imperfect person that we think we are and this perfect person we think we should be based on what we see on social media” — this is catnip for targeted advertising. There’s pressures out there to work for this consumption; to continually justify and prove ourselves.
LEVITT: I can believe your story that social media has these adverse psychological impacts on people. But if social media is so destructive, why do you think people so eagerly and actively engage with it? Do you think they’re miscalculating the cost and benefits? They’re just making a mistake and they’re destroying themselves because they’re short-sighted? Or do you think maybe the answer is the other benefits of social media are so great — the enjoyment, the fun, the being part of society are so great — that people are willing to take the bad with the good? Do you have any opinions on that?
CURRAN: It’s a really good point and it’s great to talk to an economist because there is, perhaps an assumption that there must be a rational explanation to why people use social media all the time like they do. I actually think we probably more agree than we disagree on that. I think there’s certainly an element of social media use that is for the right reasons — bringing about community, sharing interest, sharing information. I use certain social media platforms to learn about the world, politics, economics, and all the rest of it. And it’s actually helped me understand these things in a much clearer way than perhaps I would have been able to from the mainstream media. But I don’t think that there’s any doubt that there are also problems with social media, problems that are linked to what social media platforms need to do to grow. And the vast majority of their profit, of course, comes from targeted advertising that’s linked to material solutions to perceived problems or holes that people have in their lives. If we want to understand why it is that young people feel so much social expectation to be perfect, one of the reasons is because within the context of social media, the algorithms, the profit incentives are there to create a sense of discontent, an aura of discontent, into which these targeted advertisements thrive. And that’s one of the pieces of the puzzle.
LEVITT: I get that, but my own impression having talked to people who create the algorithms in social media is not that they’re even sophisticated enough to try to play on people’s weaknesses. All they got to do is figure out how to keep people on the platform as much as possible. It could very well be true that the thing that keeps people on the platform is exactly the thing that undermines their self confidence and makes them feel like they need more and more of goods to fill that hole. But again, I go back to this point, which is, in general, we don’t think people are stupid, right? When I do some behavior and I feel lousy every time I do it, I try to do less of it, not more of it. It’s a much bigger question, really, than our topic today, which is: Why it is that everybody seems to hate, say, Facebook or Instagram, and yet, the same people who complain about it spend hours doing it? I haven’t been able to make sense of that. But, again, I’m not a person who does spend hours on social media. So maybe I don’t have as much insight as I would if I suffered that same fate.
CURRAN: I’m not saying that people are stupid or they don’t know what they’re doing on these platforms. Speaking to young people, I think they know exactly how these platforms work and the algorithms are geared to keeping them online as much as possible. And yet they still use them despite that because of the reasons you described. They find a sense of community, they can hang out with their friends, they can chat to their friends. I am absolutely of the opinion that young people, and people in general, are using social media because there’s a genuine use value for it. All I’m saying is that perfectionism slots into a broader economy where the imperative is for us to do more, have more, be more. And social media is just one part of that.
LEVITT: From my vantage point, it seems like our education system in the U.S.A. — but maybe even more so in places like Japan and China — it absolutely drills perfectionist tendencies into kids. I’m sure you’d agree with that, right?
CURRAN: Yeah, absolutely. This is something that I just simply didn’t recognize from when I was at school, where the pressures were very different and the expectations were very different. When you are a professor at the London School of Economics and the people that come into your classroom are really the 1 percent of students, the highest of the highest achievers. You can tell that they’ve come through a very brutal process through school where they’ve been tested all the time, compared, ranked, and had placed on them, and placed on themselves, excessive expectations to achieve and continue to achieve at every possible assessment. And so they get there almost a dazed boot-camp survivor. And they’re wracked with that tension still, and they have this intense need and burning desire to continue to excel. Of course, now they’re in a situation where they’re amongst the elite. And I see a lot of issues in students who find it really difficult once they’re in amongst the very best achievers to continue to feel like they’re achieving. There’s no doubt that comes from an excessively competitive and pressurized education system.
LEVITT: I don’t really understand why but clearly the competitiveness of elite university admissions seems to have gone up dramatically over the last 40 or 50 years and it’s clear that the kids are highly attuned to it. So how would you change the educational system to try to lessen the forces that are pushing kids towards perfectionism?
CURRAN: You have to open up higher education, increase the access to it, increase the number of places. Daniel Markovits actually wrote a book called The Meritocracy Trap where he dealt with these issues in far more detail than I did. And the conclusion from his book was really that we need to open up access to education and, of course, that’s going to cost money. But that will, lessen the competition, i. e. make it easier for people to access higher education, even elite higher education. But we should see this actually as an investment, not a drain. A highly-educated population is one that can generate a hell of a lot of economic activity, is creative, is innovative, is entrepreneurial, can lift people out of hardship and poverty so that they’re contributing to society in meaningful ways that are aligned with their interests and skill sets. This is what education can do. And I know it sounds utopian. I know it sounds idealistic. I get that. But I really do think if you want to change the education system, you have to open up access and you have to make big investments in it.
LEVITT: If I were to make suggestions about how to change education to reduce perfectionism, I would also start much earlier than the university level. Sal Khan of Khan Academy, he’s been developing these ideas in what’s called the Khan Lab School and the Khan World School that my team’s been part of, that I think are a really effective antidote to these pernicious perfectionist tendencies in education because the central educational concept that he’s working with is that kids should work at their own pace with substantial choice over what they study within a broad subject area. And that ends up making comparisons between students much less relevant. And the model’s also built not around competition. Kids get credit for teaching and mentoring others. And I think if you’re working on different subjects at different times, then the focus becomes much more internal and much less external. And at least anecdotally, the kids who are coming out of Sal Khan’s schools seem to have much less of this competitive vision of “I have to be number one in my class, otherwise I’m a failure.” It’s not the reason Sal adopted this approach. He adopted it because he believes that kids will just learn a lot more if they’re able to work at their own pace on what interests them. But I think it’s a really nice side benefit of what he’s doing.
CURRAN: Hundred percent. Competition, I think, is the one thing that really gets into the bones of young people in the modern education system. And it’s the one thing that creates all the stress, the pressure, the expectation. And of course, all of these things are amplified by the standardized testing and the ranking and the sifting and sorting. So if you could put kids in a different context where those pressures aren’t as great, where the priority really is to find out what interests them, what their skill set is, what are the things and the topics and areas that they have a lot of intrinsic motivation for, and allow them to flourish within that context and work collaboratively — we know those things are extremely important ingredients for high level of engagement in school; a greater level of learning. If you can create environments, even whole schools, as you’ve just mentioned, that foster those things, then absolutely that’s a way better model than the one that we have at the moment.
LEVITT: When I was in high school, I would come home and I would say to my parents over dinner, “Hey, I got an A on my math test.” And my dad had a stock response that he would give every time. He would say, “Yeah, but I bet Tory Herman still beat you again.” Tory Herman was this super-human woman who was a truly brilliant mathematician. It’s interesting because you point in your book, The Perfection Trap, towards parents as being an important contributor to the growth in perfectionism. Is there evidence that there are more parents like my dad today than there were 30 or 40 years ago?
CURRAN: That’s very similar to my experience actually. My father was old-fashioned, working-class guy. And the way that he showed his love was to praise your work ethic and how hard you were working. And we are seeing, actually, a lot of emphasis that parents are placing on achievement for young people, particularly in academic context. We know this because of research that we’ve done to show that young people’s perceptions of parental expectations are growing over time, and that they’re linked, interestingly, to socially-prescribed perfectionism. And so parenting may be another piece to this puzzle.
LEVITT: So you’re a parent and you don’t want to burden your kids with a lifelong suffering of perfectionism, what should you do?
CURRAN: Well, at the moment, and as I talk about extensively in my book, parents don’t have a choice in this matter. The pressures are the way they are because it’s really important these days for young people to do well in school because the college premium still exists, but it exists for a narrow and elite set of professions — finance, law, medicine. You could probably add tech to that list too. So that’s a lot of pressure. However, that said, there are things that we can do as parents to try to mitigate some of that pressure. The biggest one is unconditional love, support, and validation for our children. And what that looks like in practice is that if young people have done really well, let’s say they’ve got an A and they come home and they’re very happy about it, then it’s really important to reinforce that, to show them that’s a really proud moment. And that they should enjoy it. But at the same time, if they come back with a grade that they weren’t so happy with; they’re disappointed, which they’ll be from time to time, it’s so, so important that you maintain that consistency of approval. That you tell them that it’s okay; this isn’t an indictment on them; it doesn’t say anything about how much they are approved of, or loved, or matter. It doesn’t say anything about how their teacher thinks of them. It’s just one test of many other tests. And I think it’s really important to put those setbacks in a broader context, and continually provide that support, love, and warmth, no matter what happens. And it’s that unconditionality of regard which is so important. Because if there’s any qualification to that regard, if our praise and approval is subtly deferred or even withheld when children haven’t done well, then what that teaches them is a very perfectionistic belief that they’re only really worth something when they’ve excelled or achieved.
You’re listening to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt and his conversation with psychologist Thomas Curran. After this short break, they’ll return to talk about perfectionism’s role in capitalism.
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The place where Thomas and I disagree most strongly I think is when he starts moving into the arena of economics. He believes that an unhealthy obsession with economic growth is driving the rise in perfectionism. I’m not sure that’s true.
LEVITT: Hiding in the background of a lot of what you said is that you blame perfectionism, in large part, on capitalism and you recommend radical changes to the way economic activities are organized as a consequence.
CURRAN: I don’t mention capitalism once in the book.
LEVITT: You dance around it. You indict our system. You just don’t use the word capitalism.
CURRAN: No, no, I don’t indict the system. I indict a very specific flavor of capitalism, which is a growth-for-all-costs, a growth-above-everything-else type of capitalism, which is a very recent phenomenon. What I’m saying in the book is that if the only thing we care about is G.D.P., economic growth, then what that means is that we will disregard the needs of human beings, of people. The incentive structure is to do things like push us to work more, consume more, that are well beyond comfort and well beyond what’s healthy, not just for ourselves, but also the planet too.
LEVITT: So I’m a little confused because I don’t know what you mean by “growth at all costs.” Are you arguing that governments are adopting policies that are excessively growth focused? I mean, capitalism is complicated because it’s based on a market and everybody makes their choices. So you, Thomas, can choose to work really hard or not work really hard, to spend your money on goods that are flashy or to spend your money on charities for the poor. I get the feeling that there’s sort of a demon in the background as you talk about the way the economy works, that I don’t know who that demon is.
CURRAN: What you’re saying is right. Like, people have their own autonomy, they have their own free choices within the market-based system. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a carryover effect. For instance, if my individual choice is to buy a big car, an S.U.V., then on an individual level, there’s an assumption that doesn’t have an impact. But if everybody did that, then that would pollute our streets and it would impact everybody. I suppose it’s the same principle when it comes to perfectionism. If one person decides that they’re going to work themselves to the bone, then that’s their free choice. Of course it is. But if everybody at an aggregate level does the same thing — if everybody pursues excessive standards, works themselves excessively hard, beyond comfort, consumes in excess, then living inside that culture, living inside that society, everybody has to too. The expectations shift. People must work harder just to stand still. And that’s the critique at the heart of a system that has to grow at all times, no matter what, in perpetuity, forever. And what I’m saying with my critique of that system is that, at some level, you’re going to reach a threshold at which human beings cannot work and consume anymore without driving themselves into the tentacles of perfectionism. And at the same time, that’s not just true of human beings; it’s also true of the planet. If we’re continuing on a loop of perpetual growth at all costs, no matter what, it means the ecosystem, biomass, diversity — all of it starts to break down. That’s what we’re seeing. I’m not an anti-capitalist. But I think that we have to use the market within a sustainable boundary where we acknowledge that there are limits to how much we can do and how much the planet can take.
LEVITT: I think it’s interesting because you’re talking about something that economists don’t talk about very much, which is the societal attitude towards the market. And economists tend to think of markets as just existing and people operate within these frameworks. And I think there’s a grain of truth to what you’re saying, which is that in the U.S. in particular, there’s this deep belief in the American dream, the idea that I should do better than my parents. I think your arguments are somewhat backwards, because I think the irony is in a world in which there’s a lot of growth, then there’s not so much conflict. Let’s go back to when we talked about education. You correctly called for the idea that we should be expanding the number of slots in universities so that more people have access. But that’s growth, really. That’s what growth in the economy does. When there’s growth in the economy, there’s all sorts of room for all sorts of people to excel in very different ways. If instead we adopt an attitude where everyone says, “Well, no, growth is bad, so we should just try to have, say, zero growth and everyone just be content with what we have” — unless you manage to change the attitudes at a very basic level, a low-growth economy actually does the worst thing possible to perfectionism because now there’s very few spots. Competition is even greater. And in some sense, I think one of the reasons perfectionism has been exploding is precisely because the opportunities for young people to really excel and to do better than their parents, at least in the U. S., have been shrinking and shrinking for decades. What do you think of those arguments?
CURRAN: Hundred percent agree with you. It’s no coincidence that we see these trends occur in a context where rates of growth have declined. But we are in an era of secular stagnation. That’s to say that we’ve reached a point in advanced economies where rates of growth are slowing. And that’s for many reasons — aging populations, the overhang of debt, rising inflation — and that of course is interfacing with excessive pressures because the spots in the middle class are declining. There is an actual hollowing out of the middle class occurring right now. Social mobility is on the decline and that’s all linked to these shrinking rates of growth. But my argument here is: what we have is not a growth problem per se, but it’s a distribution problem — a situation where we’re applying the rules of a previous era where growth rates were very healthy in the main, and we’re telling young people that the situation is unchanged and that they should have a certain standard of life by a certain age because that’s what happened in the past. But the economy is not giving them back as much as what was given back in the past. They swim in the paraphernalia of consumer culture. They have all of these amazing gadgets and toys, but what they don’t have is any stability or certainly rising living standards, which is what happened in their parents’ generation. And I’m saying, we have to wrestle with that phenomenon. We have to understand that, yes, we do live in an era of decline in growth. And that there are areas in our economy which are extractive and destructive, that certainly we may need to see some degrowth, but there are also areas in our economy where it would be great to see healthy rates of growth. Green technologies, A.I., for instance — these things can provide wonderful opportunities for prosperity. Take A.I. — it could take so much drudgery away from everyday work. It can make us way more productive without putting in more effort. It can give us back more time in our communities with our friends and families. I suppose what I’m saying in the book and in the final chapter is that we’ve got to get away from this fixation on growth at all costs. I think the emphasis needs to switch from growth to human prosperity, to things that matter for people. And then within that we tackle the distributional problem because we live in an era of excess, of abundance, but the proceeds of that abundance are extremely lopsided and not very evenly spread.
LEVITT: I’m actually a little bit surprised that a perfectionist would study perfectionism from the perspective of, it’s not in the center of psychology. It’s not mainstream. It’s not necessarily the high-prestige version. Were you not worried about being marginalized and mocked by your peers when you decided to do something a little different?
CURRAN: No, because I wasn’t ever saw myself as an academic. I didn’t really want to go to university when I was younger. I wanted to work for my father, who’s a construction worker and it excited me to get on site, and getting involved in working with my hands. I never saw myself as an academic and I got into university through the back door at a very unique time in the U.K. when people from communities like mine were being given financial support to go. I just got lucky along the way, met the right people, and somehow got myself a Ph.D. and a postdoc. So all through the process, really, I was an outsider anyway. And perfectionism came onto the table as something that I really struggled with through that process because of those expectations and pressures. And so I was just really fascinated by it. I looked into the literature, couldn’t see a great deal about it. I wanted to know more, so I started to do a few studies. I was lucky enough to have a supervisor who also had an interest in perfectionism, and he really supported me, and that’s how it started. I never really worried about being sidelined or whatever because I was never in the mainstream anyway. And perhaps that’s what helped me.
LEVITT: What you described sounds very true to me — that much of the most original research I’ve seen in economics comes from people who never expected to succeed. They didn’t have the perfect resume and so they didn’t think that they had to live up to those expectations. And I think in many ways it is the embodiment of what you’re talking about — how this fear of failure paralyzes people from doing the right thing. And it turns out to be a virtue to come from an unusual place with an unusual outlook on the world, to have you not so caught up in what the other academics are fretting about.
CURRAN: That’s true, but what I will say is that kind of context sucks you in. And whereas I’d started out by just, you know, living on a prayer sort of thing, never saying no to anything and just taking every opportunity, once you’re in the system, that’s when those pressures start to really have an impact. Because, yes, I didn’t have that fear going in, but I certainly acquired it through the process. And actually that’s when my perfectionism really started to have an impact on my mental health. Low expectations really helped me get in the door, for sure. But once you’re in the system you can really get sucked in, if that makes sense.
LEVITT: So perfectionists tend to find fault in everything they do. So I’m curious, what’s your guess about what you’re going to do after we finish this conversation? Are you going to go celebrate? Or are you going to rehash every statement you made and kick yourself for not doing it better? Or maybe a little bit of both?
CURRAN: Do you know what? I’ve really enjoyed this conversation. This has been by far the most challenging, but also enlightening conversation I’ve had about the book so far, without question. So I’m going to go away from this conversation very pleased that somebody was gracious enough to read through and pick out the important parts of the book to discuss and have a really good robust conversation about them. And I don’t know whether I’ll celebrate. I’ll probably just put the T.V. on and just unwind because it’s been very cognitively draining, but nevertheless really enjoyable.
I found two things really refreshing about this conversation. The first was how open-minded Thomas was to engage with my criticisms. So often experts dismiss the criticisms of non-experts, either out of hubris or the misguided notion that the goal is to win a debate rather than get to the truth. The second thing I found refreshing about Thomas is that the arguments he made as he spoke were, in many cases, even more convincing than what he’s written in his book. To me, that’s a true sign of mastery of one subject matter. He’s able to hear my particular concerns and bring forth just the right piece of evidence to address them. That is really hard to do. If our conversation has piqued your interest, Thomas Curran’s brand-new book is called The Perfection Trap.
LEVITT: So this is a part of the show where we take a listener question, and as always, I welcome Morgan, our producer, to give me some help.
LEVEY: Hi, Steve. So our last episode was with the Harvard astronomy professor Avi Loeb, who is a bit controversial because of his belief that it’s quite possible we’ve already encountered alien technology. At the end of the episode, you posed a question to the listeners: Is Loeb a modern Galileo or is he just a dreamer? So what did the listeners say?
LEVITT: So we got an enormous response from listeners, hundreds of people wrote in, but let’s just bear in mind, it is still a highly selected sample — in order to respond, you have to get to the end of the episode and you have to write in. It’s a weird group of people responding. And let’s just keep that in mind.
LEVEY: Are you giving that warning because of some critiques we got from listeners last time about your data collection practices?
LEVITT: No, I think I said the same thing last time. It’s always hard to do good research when you’re doing surveys. And I don’t want listeners to think of this as research as much as having fun with data. But yeah, we did get criticized in various ways. And one of the things I was criticized for last time is trying to guess the gender of respondents by either their name or their picture. And so this time I actually asked both for the gender and the age of respondents. So we had that in our data set.
LEVEY: So the last time you did a survey like this, 80 percent of our respondents were male. Was that true this time?
LEVITT: This time it was 74-percent male. So again, overwhelmingly male, but a little more balanced. And let me say it wasn’t more balanced because I was making mistakes last time in assigning gender based on names and pictures. I went through the exercise this time of trying to do the same kind of guessing I would have done. And I was right on every single person except for one out of the hundreds of people. My guesses would have been right if I hadn’t asked for gender.
LEVEY: So, what about age breakdown?
LEVITT: I was surprised. I would have thought we have a relatively young listenership, but at least when it comes to responding to the survey, only 6 percent of the people were under the age of 30. I would have expected to be more like 20 or 25 percent.
LEVEY: Maybe we should have some younger guests on the show.
LEVITT: We both would love to have younger guests, so if there are listeners who have great ideas for young guests, definitely they should send them our way. Other than that, though, the age distribution was pretty level. So there was about the same number of 30 somethings and 40 somethings and 50 somethings and 60 somethings, and also a big chunk of people 60-plus responded.
LEVEY: So, do our listeners think Loeb is a modern Galileo or just a dreamer?
LEVITT: Seventy-five percent of the people who responded to the survey thought that Lobe was a modern Galileo, and I have to say, that really surprised me.
LEVEY: Why did it surprise you so much?
LEVITT: Well, it surprised me because before I interviewed Avi, I would have said modern-day Galileo for sure. But then there was something about the interview, the way he was so defensive and talked about being persecuted by the other scientists, and he was bombastic, and all of that, I don’t know, it just set off some warning bells into me that just made me less convinced of the science behind what he’s doing. I just would have expected that people who hadn’t read his work carefully and just heard him talk — I would have expected them to be quite skeptical, but at least among the people who wrote to us, not very skeptical.
LEVEY: Was there a difference between the genders in whether they thought he was Galileo or a dreamer?
LEVITT: There was a shocking difference by gender. It turns out that males were two-thirds Galileo in their responses; 95 percent of the women said Avi Loeb was like Galileo. Ninety-five percent. Almost every woman. I wouldn’t have expected that. And in the last survey we did about whether you were an imposter, we found no gender differences at all. I was really caught off guard.
LEVEY: That’s surprising. Do you have any hypotheses?
LEVITT: I will say in my own experience, when I’ve spoken to big groups, in public lectures, one thing you sense from the audience, just by looking at the audience, is that women are much more engaged and seem much more open minded to new ideas. I guess in that sense, I’m not completely surprised. But if you had asked me ahead of time, my prediction would have been no gender differences at all.
LEVEY: Women are used to having to defend themselves and are used to not being believed, so maybe that makes them more open minded to other people too.
LEVITT: That’s an interesting hypothesis.
LEVEY: Any other interesting findings from this poll?
LEVITT: There’s one more which is a bit more anecdotal because it relates to age and we didn’t really have enough young people to say anything statistically significant. But if you look at the small sample of people who are under the age of 30, over half of them said that Avi Loeb was a dreamer. So that was different from any other part of the sample. And then continuing in that same spirit, if you look at the older people in the sample, so of folks who were over 60, more than 90 percent said that Avi Loeb was a modern Galileo, and that was the highest by far of any of the age group. So it really looked like the older you get, the more convinced you were by Avi Loeb.
LEVEY: Maybe it’s because the 20 somethings have been raised using the internet their whole lives, and they’re very aware of the spread of disinformation. Maybe the younger generation’s just more skeptical in general.
LEVITT: That’s an interesting hypothesis. I had a different one. I really think that the younger generation gets indoctrinated into thinking of the world in a rational, scientific way. That’s what they’re taught in school. And I think as you get older, you start to become more open to the idea that maybe the people who are teaching you stuff, maybe they’re not so right after all. Maybe the world is more complicated and more interesting than you’re taught in school.
LEVEY: I think your hypothesis is proving that younger people should believe that Avi Loeb is Galileo, because he’s an academic. And he’s not just any academic, he was the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard. So if younger people are more willing to believe academics, then they should fully put their support behind Avi Loeb, whereas the older generation should be more open to him not being such an expert.
LEVITT: Perhaps, but so much of Avi’s banter was about how the academy was arguing against him and how everybody said he was wrong and how he was being criticized by all the scientists because the scientists aren’t open minded to change, they’re just locked in the past.
LEVEY: He’s an outlier.
LEVITT: Exactly. But you make a good retort. Again, these are conjectures, and you make me think my conjectures are a lot less right than I had before we talked.
LEVEY: Thank you to everyone who responded to Steve’s survey. If you have a question or comment for us, our email is PIMA@freakonomics.com. That’s P-I-M-A@freakonomics.com. We read every email that’s sent and we look forward to reading yours.
In two weeks, we’ll be back with a brand new episode featuring Rick Doblin. He’s worked for the last 37 years to gain F.D.A. approval for the use of M.D.M.A. — what’s known on the streets as ecstasy — to treat patients with post-traumatic stress disorder. And it looks like, against all odds, he’s finally going to succeed.
DOBLIN: Two thirds of the people in our study at the two month follow up after the last experimental session no longer qualified for a diagnosis of P.T.S.D.
As always, thanks for listening and we’ll see you soon.
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People I (Mostly) Admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, No Stupid Questions, and The Economics of Everyday Things. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Morgan Levey with help from Lyric Bowditch, and mixed by Jasmin Klinger. Our theme music was composed by Luis Guerra. We can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, that’s P-I-M-A@freakonomics.com. Thanks for listening.
CURRAN: So that’s the whistle top stour. Whistle stop tour.
- Thomas Curran, assistant professor in the Department of Psychological and Behavioral Science at the London School of Economics.
- The Perfection Trap: Embracing the Power of Good Enough, by Thomas Curran (2023).
- “How America’s Middle Class Is Shrinking,” by Katharina Buchholz (Forbes, 2023).
- “Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time: A Meta-Analysis of Birth Cohort Differences From 1989 to 2016,” by Thomas Curran and Andrew P. Hill (Psychological Bulletin, 2019).
- The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite, by Daniel Markovits (2019).
- “Our Dangerous Obsession With Perfectionism Is Getting Worse,” by Thomas Curran (TEDMED, 2018).
- “The Fading American Dream: Trends in Absolute Income Mobility Since 1940,” by Raj Chetty, David Grusky, Maximilian Hell, Nathaniel Hendren, Robert Manduca, and Jimmy Narang (NBER Working Paper, 2016).
- Perfectionism: Theory, Research, and Treatment, by Paul Hewitt and Gordon Flett (2002).
- “Perfectionism in the Self and Social Contexts: Conceptualization, Assessment, and Association With Psychopathology,” by Paul Hewitt and Gordon Flett (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1991).
- “Do We Have Evidence of Alien Life?” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2023).
- “Ninety-Eight Years of Economic Wisdom,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2023).
- “Is Economic Growth the Wrong Goal? (Update),” by Freakonomics Radio (2023).
- “Extra: An Update on the Khan World School,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2023).
- “Is This the Future of High School?” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2022).
- “The University of Impossible-to-Get-Into,” by Freakonomics Radio (2022).