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A study suggests that the pursuit of excellence – but not perfection – drives creative performance

A study suggests that the pursuit of excellence - but not perfection - drives creative performance
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New research published in the British Journal of Psychology suggests that if you want to improve your creativity, it is better to aim for excellence rather than perfection. In two studies, students who sought excellence performed better on creative tasks than students who sought perfection.

Perfectionists are people who strive for perfection, set extremely high standards for themselves, and are very critical of their own behavior. While perfectionism has been the subject of much research, it is still unclear how the concept relates to creative thinking. Perfectionists can be expected to lack creativity, as creativity requires being flexible and open to error. But perfectionists can also be expected to be very creative, since creative pursuits require perseverance and commitment, qualities typical of perfectionists.

A team of researchers from the University of Ottawa suggested that these contrasting expectations could be explained by a distinction between the pursuit of excellence and the pursuit of perfection. Their reasoning was based on a theory developed by one of the study’s authors, Patrick Gaudreau, called the Model of Excellence and Perfectionism (MEP).

The model explains that the concepts of excellence and perfectionism, although related, are distinct in their goals. While both concepts involve the pursuit of very high standards, excellence is flexible while perfectionism is ruthless. Perfectionism goes beyond the search for excellence and aims for perfection.

“Standards of perfection have a big impact on the creative process,” the study’s author explained. Jean-Christophe Goulet-Pelletier, PhD student at the University of Ottawa. “It affects the motivation, emotions and behaviors of individuals. Intense efforts can be energizing, but can also rigidify individuals’ behaviors when rigidly defined. We wanted to determine whether high strivings for perfection were beneficial, neutral, or detrimental to creative thinking. »

In two different studies, researchers explored how excellence and perfectionism relate to different aspects of creativity. In a first study, 280 students at a Canadian university answered questionnaires and then completed a creative task that measured divergent thinking, a measure of creativity. The task asked students to find creative ways to use everyday objects, a test of their ability to come up with multiple solutions to a problem at hand.

Results revealed that as students performed better in academic excellence (e.g., “My goal in school is to be high achiever”), they demonstrated more creative thinking. high – giving both a greater number of responses to the task as well as more original responses. In contrast, as students scored higher in academic perfectionism (e.g., “My goal in school is to do perfectly.”), they provided fewer total responses and gave less original responses.

In addition, students who were classified as “excellence seekers” (students with high excellence scores and low perfectionism scores) scored higher on openness to experience and on two measures of creative thinking relative to “perfection seekers” (students with both high excellence scores and high perfectionism scores). perfectionism scores).

A follow-up study with a second sample of college students replicated these findings using dispositional measures of perfectionism and excellence (e.g., “As a person, my overall goal in life is to …”). This second study also extended the results to an additional measure of performance, asking students to complete word association tasks that tested their ability to generate ideas without measuring creativity.

“Aiming for lofty and personally meaningful goals is an important part of the creative process. However, individuals must be careful not to rigidly pursue goals that leave little room for exploration of possibilities and self-expression,” Goulet-Pelletier told PsyPost.

The researchers note several reasons why perfectionism might block creativity. On the one hand, perfectionists may be overly driven to find quick and perfect solutions, leading them to focus on conventional strategies and avoid new and uncertain ones. Second, being unduly analytical and critical of their performance can prevent perfectionists from achieving creative flow. Likewise, excessively doubting their actions can hamper their cognitive engagement and concentration.

“The pursuit of perfection beyond excellence is likely to limit experimentation, spontaneity and openness,” the study authors wrote. “Letting go of the constraint of perfection means changing the narrative so that it becomes ‘good if not always perfect'” (Nordin-Bates, 2020, p. 31). As such, our findings suggest that excellence might be an appropriate alternative to pursuing perfectionist standards.

The authors noted 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 results replicate in other aspects of creative achievement.

“Many issues need to be addressed,” explained Goulet-Pelletier. “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 life contexts, such as in the workplace versus Another line of questioning is to understand what happens when creativity is necessary to achieve perfection?

“As a general comment for the reader, I would like to point out that one study is never enough to conclude anything,” he added. “The results are sometimes reinterpreted in the light of new theories. Aggregation and replication of effects are necessary to ensure their reliability.

The study, “Does perfectionism kill creative thinking? Testing the model of excellence and perfectionism», was written by Jean-Christophe Goulet-Pelletier, Patrick Gaudreau and Denis Cousineau.


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