Heart rate study suggests perfectionists don’t really try harder

The desire to produce perfect results in every situation can have both adaptive and dysfunctional outcomes. On the positive side, perfectionism is known to be associated with better performances on tests and other assignments. It has been theorized that these results may be facilitated by increased effort, in comparison to non-perfectionist and maladaptive perfectionists. Existing studies of perfectionism usually employ a self-report design to obtain estimates of effort and similar characteristics, with little attention being given to potential objective measures of the same variables.

A new article in PLoS One describes an experiment that examined the effort levels of perfectionists as measured by cardiac activity.

Performed by researchers Kelly Harper, Kari Eddington and Paul Silvia from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, the investigation included 98 female participants recruited from undergraduate psychology classes. To begin, they completed The Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale, which is a 45-item survey designed to establish a rating of perfectionist tendencies. Effort was elicited using a number-judgement interaction known as the parity task. Multiple measures of cardiac and respiratory activity were recorded via electrodes that were connected to an electrocardiogram (ECG) device and related pieces of hardware. Five minutes of resting time was initially analyzed to establish baseline cardiac scores prior to the parity task.

Cardiac activity was found to be higher during the testing phase in comparison to the baseline, confirming that the parity task itself was successful in eliciting increased cardiac effort. Similar results were seen in respiratory variables. However, contrary to expectations, high perfectionism scores did not correlate with increased effort in any category. Also surprisingly, overall performance (number of correct answers) on the parity task was not better for perfectionists.

Perfectionism and associated effort have commonly been measured with subjective surveys, but the results of this study show that objective physiological variables may not correspond to those findings as had been expected. Here, a significant association was not apparent between increased effort and perfectionistic tendencies. This result highlights the importance of verifying subjective concepts with objective measurements whenever possible.

It is also possible that the findings were a result of using the parity task as the sole test in the design. While the task did appear to produce increased effort, performances were not found to be better for perfectionists, contradicting previous findings and suggesting that the goal may not have been sufficient to generate a genuine response. Further research will be required for clarification.