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Perfectionists are people who strive for flawlessness, set intensely high standards for themselves, and are highly critical of their own behavior. While perfectionism has been the subject of much research, it remains unclear how the concept relates to creative thinking. Perfectionists might be expected to be short on creativity since creativity requires being flexible and open to mistakes. But perfectionists might also be expected to be high in creativity since creative pursuits call for perseverance and commitment — qualities that are typical of perfectionists.
A team of researchers from the University of Ottawa proposed that these contrasting expectations might be explained by a distinction between striving for excellence and perfection. Their reasoning was based on a theory developed by one of the study authors called the Model of Excellencism and Perfectionism (MEP).
The Model of Excellencism and Perfectionism (MEP) explains that the concepts of excellencism and perfectionism, while related, are distinct in their goals. While both concepts involve the pursuit of very high standards, excellencism is flexible while perfectionism is unforgiving. Perfectionism goes beyond striving for excellence and aims for flawlessness.
“Standards of perfection have an important impact on the process of creation,” explained study author Jean- Christophe Goulet-Pelletier, a PhD student at the University of Ottawa. “It affects the motivation, emotions, and behaviors of individuals. High strivings can be energizing, but may also rigidify the behaviors of individuals when set rigidly. We wanted to investigate whether high strivings of perfection were beneficial, neutral, or detrimental to creative thinking.”
The researchers note several reasons why perfectionism might block creativity. For one, perfectionists may be overly motivated to find quick and perfect solutions, leading them to focus on conventional strategies and to avoid new and uncertain ones. Secondly, being unduly analytical and critical of their performance may hold perfectionists back from achieving a creative flow. Similarly, being overly doubtful of their actions may impede their cognitive engagement and concentration.
“Striving for perfection over and above excellence is likely to limit experimentation, spontaneity, and openness,” the study authors wrote. “Relaxing the perfection constraint means changing the narrative so that it becomes ‘okay if it isn’t always perfect’ (Nordin-Bates, 2020, p. 31). As such, our findings suggest that excellencism could be a suitable alternative to the pursuit of perfectionistic standards.”
“Many questions need to be addressed,” Goulet-Pelletier explained. “Our study did not specifically identify which mechanism explained the detrimental effect of perfectionism on creative thinking abilities. Moreover, creativity and perfectionism are expressed differently in different contexts of life, such as in the workplace vs. in arts. Another line of questioning is to understand what happens when creativity is needed to reach perfection?”
The authors note that their studies employed only a small number of creative and associative tasks, which may have compromised the generalizability of their findings. Future studies should explore additional creative tasks to see if the findings replicate across other aspects of creative achievement.
“As a general comment for the reader, I’d like to emphasize that a single study is never enough to conclude anything,” Goulet-Pelletier added. “Results are sometimes reinterpreted in light of new theories. The aggregation and replication of effects is needed to ascertain their reliability.”
“An idea is something that won’t work unless you do.” - Thomas A. Edison
New research published in the British Journal of Psychology suggests that if we want to improve our creativity, it is better to aim for excellence rather than perfection.
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