Study suggests that striving for excellence — but not perfection — boosts creative performance

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. Across two studies, students who were pursuing excellence performed better on creative tasks than students who were pursuing perfection.

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, Patrick Gaudreau, called the Model of Excellencism and Perfectionism (MEP).

The model 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.”

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

The results revealed that as students scored higher in academic excellencism (e.g., “My goal at school is to perform very well.”) they demonstrated higher creative thinking — giving both a higher number of answers on the task as well as answers that were more original. By contrast, as students scored higher in academic perfectionism (e.g., “My goal at school is to perform perfectly.”) they provided a smaller number of total answers and gave answers that were less original.

Further, students who were classified as “excellence strivers” (students with high excellencism scores and low perfectionism scores) scored higher on openness to experience and on both measures of creative thinking compared to the “perfection strivers” (students with both high excellencism and high perfectionism scores).

A follow-up study among a second sample of students replicated these findings using dispositional measures of perfectionism and excellencism (e.g., “As a person, my general goal in life is to…”). This second study also extended the findings to an additional measure of performance, by having students perform word association tasks that tested how well they generated ideas without measuring creativity.

“Aiming towards high and personally meaningful goals constitutes an important part of the creative process. However, individuals should be careful not to rigidly pursue goals which leaves little room for the exploration of possibilities and the expression of oneself,” Goulet-Pelletier told PsyPost.

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.”

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 findings replicate across other aspects of creative achievement.

“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?”

“As a general comment for the reader, I’d like to emphasis that a single study is never enough to conclude anything,” he added. “Results are sometimes reinterpreted in light of new theories. The aggregation and replication of effects is needed to ascertain their reliability.”

The study, “Is perfectionism a killer of creative thinking? A test of the model of excellencism and perfectionism”, was authored by Jean-Christophe Goulet-Pelletier, Patrick Gaudreau, and Denis Cousineau.

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