It has been commonly suggested that young people with above-average intelligence are at risk of developing a perfectionist mindset. However, research from the Journal of Personality suggests that youth with greater cognitive ability are actually less concerned about making mistakes. The researchers uncovered several parental factors that were associated with perfectionism in adolescents.
The authors of the study, led by Jeroen Lavrijsen of KU Leuven, say that previous findings concerning the associations between perfectionism and intelligence have been mixed. One reason for these inconsistencies in the literature, the authors note, might be the tendency to separate intelligence scores into two different categories, comparing gifted children with non-gifted children. The cut-off between giftedness and non-giftedness can be difficult to ascertain and somewhat arbitrary.
“As a researcher in the field of intellectual giftedness, I have repeatedly encountered the argument that the gifted youth would be more prone to develop perfectionistic tendencies (e.g., excessive concerns about mistakes),” Lavrijsen told PsyPost.
“For example, highly intelligent children have been argued to hinge their self-esteem on their exceptional talent, which might lead to an inner compulsion and drive to always perform well. Similarly, a lack of challenge at school has been said to deprive such students from opportunities to cope with failure adequately, leading them to be intensively preoccupied with avoiding failure all together.”
“However, to date, empirical evidence for elevated levels of perfectionism in intellectually gifted youth has been limited and mixed. This may have to do with the fact that many studies on gifted youth made use of pre-selected samples, in which gifted respondents were recruited among those formally identified as gifted (e.g., among participants in gifted summer camps).
“But findings on such preselected samples may not be generalizable because formally identified gifted youth might not be representative for gifted youth as a whole. Hence, I investigated the association between intellectual giftedness and perfectionism in a large community-based, non-selective sample.”
The researchers conducted a study using data from a large-scale study among 7th grade students from 27 schools in Belgium. Of the 3,168 students involved, 2,698 had at least one parent complete an additional parent survey.
The youth completed assessments for two dimensions of perfectionism. The first dimension assessed concern about making mistakes and worry that failure will result in a loss of respect from others. The second dimension assessed the tendency to place high expectations on oneself and to place a high importance on one’s performance. The students also completed a test of cognitive ability, and parents were asked to indicate if their children had ever been identified as gifted.
In light of research suggesting that parents of gifted children display particular parenting techniques, the researchers also assessed several parenting variables. Both the adolescents and their parents rated the extent that parents displayed high parental expectations, critical parenting, and conditional regard.
The researchers found that greater intelligence was only associated with one of the dimensions of perfectionism. Adolescents with greater cognitive ability held higher expectations for themselves, but lower concern over making mistakes. This remained true even after controlling for the youth’s personality and gender.
It is unclear, according to the researchers, whether the tendency to set high personal standards is beneficial for students’ success and well-being or whether it might be detrimental. It could be that intelligent students hold high standards as a result of external pressure from others (e.g., parents, teachers) or it could be that these higher standards stem from an intrinsic desire to challenge themselves. Lavrijsen and colleagues think the former mindset is likely detrimental while the latter is likely positive.
The authors also found that all of the perfectionism-related parenting factors were positively linked to concern over mistakes. They note that both positive and negative conditional regard were linked to greater concern over errors.
“Cognitive ability was related to a higher pursuit of personal standards, but did not constitute a risk factor for excessive concerns about mistakes,” Lavrijsen explained. “By contrast, parenting practices such as parental criticism, high parental expectations, and conditionally regarding parenting were much more important in explaining the development of such concerns.”
Interestingly, all of these parental factors were negatively related to adolescents’ intelligence — youth with greater ability had parents who showed less of these perfectionist parenting practices.
The researchers said that their findings run counter to the assumption often held by educational specialists that perfectionism is a key characteristic of gifted students. But the authors noted that their study does not allow conclusions to be drawn on whether parenting might fuel perfectionism in adolescents or whether perfectionism in adolescents might influence parenting.
“A limitation of the study is that it relied on cross-sectional data, which impedes making claims about the direction of the observed associations,” Lavrijsen said. “In particular, the relationships between parenting and perfectionism could work in both ways: demanding, critical or conditional parenting could fuel the development of perfectionism, but problematic functioning of adolescents could also evoke parents to resort to parenting practices they believe to be effective in leading their adolescents back to the desired behavior.”
“In addition, the present study only addressed average relations between cognitive ability and perfectionism. It is possible that certain subgroups of adolescents, also among those with high cognitive capacities, do exhibit higher vulnerabilities to develop perfectionistic tendencies. Future research could examine whether such subgroups exist and which factors determine membership in such groups.”
The study, “Is intelligence related to perfectionism? Multidimensional perfectionism and parental antecedents among adolescents across varying levels of cognitive ability”, was authored by Jeroen Lavrijsen, Bart Soenens, Maarten Vansteenkiste, and Karine Verschueren.