Study uncovers how perfectionism can lead to problematic drinking

New research sheds light on how the desire to hide one’s imperfections from others can lead to alcohol-related problems. The findings appear in the Journal of Research in Personality.

“Broadly speaking, perfectionism is a risk factor for a lot of psychopathology, specifically anxiety, depression, and eating disorders,” said study author Sean P. Mackinnon of Dalhousie University.

“However, the links between this set of personality traits and alcohol problems was comparatively mixed. That is, there was an unusual pattern wherein perfectionists didn’t tend to drink a lot; however, they did tend to experience more alcohol-related problems when they do drink (e.g., blacking out, missing work, conflict while drunk). So I wanted to study this more rigorously.”

“Another interest for me was examining the variability in perfectionism and drinking motivations from day-to-day. Common wisdom proposes that personality traits are ‘set like plaster’ and don’t change much. However, I’ve found in the past that there is variability from day-to-day and wanted to see if I could confirm that in another study. It’s important, because if personality can change, it can be a treatment target.”

The study of 263 young adult drinkers used daily questionnaires to assess perfectionism, emotional states, drinking motives, and alcohol-induced problems. Some of the problems included neglecting responsibilities, getting in fights, taking foolish risks, and harming personal relationships.

The researchers found a relationship between one facet of perfectionism and alcohol problems. Concerns about concealing imperfect behaviors were associated with negative mood, drinking to cope, and drinking to fit in, which in turn were associated with alcohol problems.

In other words, agreeing with statements such as “I was concerned about making errors in public” and “I thought it would be awful if I made a fool of myself in front of others” indirectly predicted alcohol problems.

But there was no relationship found between perfectionistic cognitions — such as “I expect to be perfect” — and alcohol problems.

“I found support for one pathway by which perfectionism leads to problematic drinking,” MacKinnon told PsyPost.

“Specifically, when people feel like they have to conceal imperfections from others, they tend to experience increased negative emotions (e.g., sadness, shame, anger). As a result, they are at risk for drinking to cope (i.e., drinking to reduce those negative emotions) and drinking for conformity (i.e., drinking to minimize social rejection). These motivations in turn led to a higher rate of alcohol problems.”

However, perfectionism predict did not predict the quantity of alcohol consumption. “The other curious thing is that perfectionists tend to have more alcohol-related problems, but don’t necessarily consume a large amount of alcohol,” MacKinnon noted.

The study — like all research — includes some limitations. “I got reports from participants once a day for 20 days. Though this helps examine the processes from day-to-day, it still doesn’t clearly address causality (i.e., which variable comes first)?” MacKinnon explained.

“I’d be interested to see if antidepressant medication use might be a confounding variable (i.e., it could have increased usage among perfectionists and often reduces alcohol tolerance). The sample is also only emerging adults ages 18-25, is predominantly female and Caucasian, and sampled only from two sites (Halifax and Montreal), so results may not generalize to samples that differ greatly from the one we collected. ”

The study, “Perfectionism, negative motives for drinking, and alcohol-related problems: A 21-day diary study“, was authored by Sean P. Mackinnon, Cassondra M. Ray, Samantha M. Firth, and Roisin M. O’Connor. The data and questionnaires used are available here: https://osf.io/gduy4.