You spend 30 minutes writing and rewriting a three-sentence email. You get back a class test, and you believe you failed because you missed two of the questions. You can’t tolerate failure and anything less than perfect isn’t worth achieving.

If you relate to any of the three situations above, you may be a perfectionist yourself. In our current society, where competition is fierce and high quality work is demanded, we often desire success in everything we do, and at times, this leaves almost no room for tolerating mistakes or failure.

Having chosen to study the construct of perfectionism for the test development project, I decided to base my test on already existing perfectionism scales. Nevertheless, while reading up on the literature regarding perfectionism as a construct, as well as the current forms of measurement for perfectionism, I came across a few recurring flaws, or rather, limitations of these scales.

For my research, as well as for this article, I will focus on well-recognized perfectionism scales, such as the Frost Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale (MPS-F), the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale developed by Hewitt and Flett (MPS-HF), as well as the Adaptive/Maladaptive Perfectionism Scale (AMPS) administered in children. These scales, although they all attempt to measure perfectionistic behaviour in people, are based on theories with, more or less, subtle differences.

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Couple of the limitations I noticed with regards to these scales were:

Lack of general and operational definition of perfectionism:

  • There remains a disagreement over the definition of perfectionism. Adler and Hamachek, the authors of the AMPS, make a distinction between adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism. They suggest that, although striving for perfectionism is normal, people who are maladaptive perfectionists work towards unrealistic goals. Meanwhile, authors like Hewitt contradict the notion of perfectionism being adaptive, and argue that this type of behaviour correlates with depression and anxiety, and therefore is not adaptive in any way. In fact, Hewitt and Flett have promoted the idea of multidimensional perfectionism, in which perfection comes in different flavours. This latter theory posits that the different aspects of perfectionism can be measured using items from a specific subscale, and that each one of the flavours has its own share of problems.
  • Not only is there debate regarding the general conception of perfectionism, and what terms like “adaptive” really entail, but there is also the lack of a robust operational definition. Looking at different aspects, such as “high standards”, give little insight to whether the perfectionistic behaviour is adaptive or not due to the influence of the specific context — if high standards are adaptive in only some situations and not others, where would you draw the line?

Lack of comprehensiveness across tests

  • Though this limitation heavily relies on establishing a common operational definition between researchers, there does not seem to be much effort in combining existing scales and their theories. Currently, the preferred method of assessing perfectionistic behaviour is using both the MPS-F and MPS-HF scales, to cover pretty much the full range of perfectionism constructs. Nevertheless, it has been shown that many of the dimensions on the MPS-F and MPS-HF are closely associated in terms of the conceptual focus of the items on both scales are very similar. Moreover, another analysis using factor analysis of the MPS-F scale has demonstrated that the initial six subscales of perfectionism it analyzed in the scale could actually be perfected into four, more robust, dimensions. These findings suggest there may be room for more overlap between measurement methods based on other theories as well.

All in all, it is still unclear whether or not perfectionism is a maladaptive trait. The existing scales do a great job of going through, more or less, the fundamental aspects of perfectionistic behaviour, and although they attempt to classify certain traits into different flavours of perfectionism, there is still room for improvement. Likewise, as an attempt to propose a comprehensive model for measuring perfectionism, I looked for overlapping items between different scales, such that they would relate to different dimensions on more than one measurement. Although this is a very crude way of bringing together the different existing tests, I think of it as an attempt to address some of the limitations I noticed during my research!