The Link Between Neoliberalism, Perfectionism, and Mental Health Disorders

Yves here. As someone plagued by perfectionism (except with respect to typos :-)), it is very unpleasant to live with, and it also makes it hard to be around other people, since the perfectionist both feels pressured by others (whether or not that is fully true) tends to inflict his standards and anxieties on those near him. It’s useful only in small doses and it seldom comes that way.

Put it another way: as this Real News Network segment documents, modern society is getting good at creating more neurotics, since neurosis is good for productivity, and in more extreme cases, can also advance Lambert’s second rule of neoliberalism: “Die faster!”

The worst is that the rise in perfectionism isn’t all or even mainly in the heads of its victims. In a highly economically stratified society, the cost of mistakes and failures can be very high. So just as depressives have a more accurate view of themselves that supposedly “healthy” people, so to perfectionists may have a pretty accurate grasp of the downside of screw-ups.

GREG WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Gregory Wilpert coming to you from Quito, Ecuador.

A recent report from the World Health Organization indicates that depression and anxiety disorders worldwide are at an all-time high. It seems, though, that most of the increases in mental disorders have happened in so-called “First World” countries such as Europe and the U.S. and Canada. Why is this?

A study that was released last month in the Bulletin of the American Psychological Association tries to provide an explanation. According to the study, which looked at college-age populations in the U.S., Canada, and Britain, perfectionism has been on the rise throughout the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s. The study relates the rise in perfectionism to the increasing role in neoliberalism in these countries and also shows how perfectionism has a negative impact on mental health.

Joining me to discuss the study is one of its authors, Thomas Curran. Thomas is a lecturer in the Department for Health at the University of Bath. Thanks for joining us today, Thomas.

THOMAS CURRAN: Thank you for having me.

GREG WILPERT: Your study focuses on perfectionism and its rise between 1989 and 2016. First, what do you mean by perfectionism? How do you define it?

THOMAS CURRAN: Perfectionism is a personality characteristic, and it has a number of different elements. Now, the first element of perfectionism is one that, I guess, most people commonly associate with perfectionism, and that’s this idea that we have high levels or excessively high levels of personal standards and we strive for flawlessness. That’s called self-oriented perfectionism, and that’s the first element of perfectionism.

The second is a social dimension of perfectionism, and this is the idea that we perceive that our social climates, the people around us in the immediate environment and also the broader environment, is excessively demanding of us.

And the third element is the dimension of perfectionism that’s directed outwards onto others, so it’s this idea that we expect others to be perfect and we have excessively high demands of others.

Together, those three elements are what we understand when we talk about perfectionism.

GREG WILPERT: I understand that what you did was a study of studies basically, which is to look at 146 research projects, or something like that, on this topic and then reanalyze their results to come up with this broad scope and timeframe. So let’s turn to your main findings, that is that perfectionism has been rising since 1989. You mentioned three different kinds, so what kind of perfectionism has been rising, and in which countries has it been rising the most?

THOMAS CURRAN: We found that all three of those dimensions are rising. But what’s really interesting is the dimension of perfectionism that has undergone the largest increase, twice that of the other two, is socially prescribed perfectionism. As I said, that dimension is associated with the perception that demands placed upon us are excessive. Now, those are the broad headline findings, and that’s the main one.

We controlled for country, so between-country differences. These are American, British, and Canadian college students, so we did a control of a country to see if there’s any differences in those trends, and we didn’t find that when we controlled a country any differences emerged. So essentially, these trends are consistent across the nations, in our analysis.

GREG WILPERT: And you relate the rise in perfectionist attitudes to the rise of neoliberalism during the same time period. What exactly is the connection here between neoliberalism and perfectionism?

THOMAS CURRAN: We were very cautious about using the term “neoliberalism” because it can be considered a bit of a nebulous term. But short of anything better, we wanted to use this phrase because what we mean by “neoliberalism” is this idea that, or essentially a shorthand description for a political philosophy, which essentially suggests that the market and marketized forms of competition are the only organizing principle of human activity. Essentially what that meant is that since the neoliberal era and the market reforms of Thatcher, Reagan, and Mulroney in Canada, is essentially an introduction of marketized forms of competition into civic institutions where they never used to be.

One of the key institutions is education, and we see the market in education for things like standardized testing and the incessant standardized testing of young children from very young ages because tests give us metrics that allow us to rank, sift, and sort, so we can get an idea of which kids are better performing, which kids are worse performing, which kids are going to the top grades and therefore the top places in universities. It’s a very useful way in a market-based society to organize.

But the problem with this, of course, is that what we’re doing is we’re teaching children that they need to compete against each other in an open marketplace. So we are essentially instilling a sense of social anxiety, of social hierarchy. We’re suggesting that inequality is virtuous because those that have done well deserve the rewards. And so essentially what we have now is a culture where we are continually comparing, and it isn’t just in education. The explosion of social media has put this idea of social comparison on steroids and essentially has given us a platform at a societal level for people to engage in social comparison, continually working out where we stand relative to others.

The link to perfectionism here is that if we continually worry about how we perform relative to others, and if the consequences of failure are so catastrophic, both economically but also for our sense of self-worth — that’s to say, if we don’t get the perfect score, if we don’t get a high score, if we don’t rank better than others, then we feel worse about ourselves and our self-esteem — what that means is that we tend to cope in that culture by developing perfectionistic tendencies because of course if we have high standards, then we’re unlikely to fail, and if were unlikely to fail, we’re unlikely to feel badly about ourselves and also we’re more likely to ensure that we have a higher market price.

So that’s why we link it with neoliberalism, because of this idea that we’re almost forcing kids to compete with each other and to cope, perfectionistic tendencies are emerging.

GREG WILPERT: I think that really makes sense, but it seems to me that you define neoliberalism mostly as a culture and less so as a particular practice. And I’m wondering about that because you talk about attitudes, about the neoliberal attitude towards competition, for example. But couldn’t one perhaps also say that neoliberalism is a way of organizing society that is where the welfare state, for example, gets dismantled and state’s functions are privatized, and that basically in the end not just promote an attitude of competition but actually do indeed force us to compete against each other? So that, in other words, it’s not just a culture but also a social condition, if you will, in which we live whether we like it or not and whether we share that culture or that attitude or not. In other words, could it be also that the practice of neoliberalism is generating perfectionism and not just its culture?

THOMAS CURRAN: Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting you say the safety net because, of course, the post-war settlement in the interwar years in the UK here, with Clement Attlee and Aneurin Bevan, they invested heavily in the welfare state, and they socialized the risk of failure. If you were made unemployed or you had health problems, the state was there to give you healthcare or was there to give you a hand up so that you could find a new place of employment.

So the consequences of failure, of course, in that culture and that economic model are far less severe than they are today, where there’s high levels of precarity in the job market, where healthcare is very expensive. And thank goodness in the UK we still have socialized healthcare, but that’s not the case in the U.S.

So you’re absolutely right. It isn’t just the culture, but it’s also the physical, tangible effects on social and civic institutions, which I think also force us to compete but also force us to fear the consequences of economic and image failure.

GREG WILPERT: Finally, just to return to the introduction again, your paper relates perfectionism to mental health problems. What is the connection here between perfectionism and mental health?

THOMAS CURRAN: The seminal work that’s been done in this area has been done by mainly — there are other people I’m probably forgetting, but — there are mainly two professors in Canada, Professor Paul Hewitt and Professor Gordon Flett. A lot of the earlier work, I mean, they’ve done a lot of heavy lifting in this literature, and a lot of the early work that they’ve done in clinical populations, and non-clinical populations but in clinical populations mainly, has suggested that perfectionism is a core vulnerability to severe psychological illness.

The reason why perfectionism is a core vulnerability is because perfectionism is focused … The whole drive in energy from perfectionism comes from all this effort, all of this drive, and all of this need for validation comes from a place of trying to perfect an imperfect self, trying to perfect ourselves. That’s fine. If we’re getting positive feedback and if we’re achieving, those things are okay.

But the problem is for perfectionists, because they have excessively high goals and because perfectionism is by definition an impossible goal, when we fail, because the consequence of failure is so catastrophic for our sense of self-esteem, because we tie our self-esteem on others’ approval and a need for higher achievement, then when we fail or when we are rejected by others or when we don’t receive positive feedback, then we tend to ruminate, we tend to brew over those, what could’ve been otherwise or what we should’ve done. And over time, those very negative thoughts and feelings turn into anxiety, depression, and in the most extreme cases, suicidal thought. So it’s a highly damaging trait, and these trends are quite worrying because of that.

GREG WILPERT: Okay, well, that’s a very interesting study, I find. Thanks so much. I was speaking to Thomas Curran, lecturer at the University of Bath. Thanks again for having joined us today, Thomas.


GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.

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  1. Hayek's Heelbiter


    Finally, psychologists and sociologists are beginning to statistically link the devastating effects of the neoliberal philosphy upon individual temperament.

    And I’m seeing a trickle of articles about sociobiology and what happens when several million years of primate evolution coincide with scorched-earth capitalism. E.g., men are genetically wired to be providers, and when the C-suites slash payrolls to plump their already obscenely obese slice of the pie, they are not only taking away men’s income, they are destroying their entire identities with concomitant suicides and opioid addiction, and, in the process, ripping apart the social fabric of hapless communities and even countries.

    May the trickle of these investigations turn into a torrent, but even more importantly, may the studies have an impact upon social and political policy before the disenfranchised decide they have nothing to left lose.

    Alas, history does not really provide many hopeful harbingers.

    1. lex

      Not to mention that people get fired at the drop of a hat nowadays. I’ve talked to my older relatives about this, and firing used to be infrequent. Now, employers seem to take some glee in firing people.

      If they aren’t being individually fired, then there is the constant layoffs and restructuring.

      1. Sueliz

        I have two elderly German friends who have each lived in the US for over 50 years in CA and CO. Both remember coming to the states speaking little English and getting jobs within a week of looking. One had her brother take her around and help her fill out an application in a bank (she was a bookkeeper), a job she got and kept for a while. Each of these two worked continuously and never seemed to worry about unemployment. One lives in her house in San Francisco that today couldn’t be bought by two people both earning 6 figure salaries.

        America has slid so far off the rails, I am not sure people can even imagine a better situation. We have all a form of “Learned Helplessness” where we believe we live in the “best of all possible worlds” and only if we out-compete everyone all the time might we be safe (for a year or so until our elimination is “convenient” for our rich masters). We are taught that it is sacrilege to ask for anything more if we are just worker-bees and we believe it. Not sure what to do about it….

  2. Tertium Squid

    Doing cognitive work with a high degree of accuracy isn’t necessarily so stressful, but doing so under immense time pressure and with constant interruptions definitely is.

  3. DJG

    Some caveats here: The study that the interviewee Curran is the author of focuses on the U.S.A., U.K., and Canada, in other words, the main Anglo economies and their fantasies. Yet the first paragraph has Wilpert asserting international implications and quoting the WHO. Unfortunately, this kind of analysis is typical of Anglo sources: “If it’s happening to us Anglos, it must be universal!”

    The Anglo world suffers from some distinct fantasies, including one major one: its own importance.

    At the same time, as much as I’d like to chalk up all depression and perfectionism in the U.S. of A. to the so-called market reforms (which, in fact, brought back nineteenth-century Anglo-American laissez-faire economic fantasy), I’d also point so such cultural factors among the Anglos as evangelical and fundamentalist Protestantism, with their stress on perfection through external sources. The continuing crisis of monotheism is likely to have produced depression, anxiety, and distorted standards.

    The emphasis in U.S. culture on self-improvement, which goes back easily to Emerson and others, also has resulted in anxiety.

    A culture that praises greed (despite biblical strictures to the contrary), that produced Amazing Grace (something external will reform you), that gave us Prohibition (reform, or else), and that continues on and on with televangelists and the money gospel and The Apprentice is going to have neuroses. The U.S. of A., accordingly, is the land of distraught extroverts. Further, every one of these cultural factors also has shown itself hostile to the welfare state and to basic fairness.

    Yes, we should start by adjusting the Gini Quotient so that economic inequality stops getting worse. But our neuroses and depression are made by the culture, too, which is in serious need of real reform and revolution.

    1. Rojo

      All good points. You can go even further in that Christianity holds a perfect soul as something to aspire to, whereas the ancients gave human qualities to their Gods. (Is that Jung or Campbell?).

      But I think neoliberalism has thrown gas on the fire by glorifying competition instead of seeing it as a sometime necessary facet of social existence.

  4. David

    There’s a genuine problem here, but I’m not sure that it’s “perfectionism”, nor that “neoliberalism” is really the right word to explain its cause. Perfectionism, if it’s internally generated and aimed at doing something really well, is actually healthy – ask any Zen monk. But what we have here is essentially a culture of constant evaluation with penalties for failure, in an environment of endless stressful competition on every subject. As David Graeber argued in “The Utopia of Rules”, the real problem is that most of the criteria by which we are judged are irrational, contradictory and completely impenetrable. It’s that, rather than just competition that’s the cause of the problem.

    1. jrs

      yea it is kind of why perfectionists can, although they are trying to adapt, actually be in part deluded. Because perfectionism is also a belief that it’s all in your control if only you are perfect enough, but as the rules to suceed are often irrational, contradictory and impenetrable it is often NOT actually in your control.

    2. Wisdom Seeker

      I agree with you, David. This “study” appears to be artificially redefining a common word (possibly two), and then drawing an overly broad conclusion which doesn’t comport with everyday use of those terms. But it does make a striking headline.

      Furthermore, it’s a gross error in any scientific discipline to assume that a single study or analysis is conclusive of anything; independent replication of results is vital. Something like 1/3 of research “studies” cannot be replicated and are presumably flawed.

      The study’s authors appear to make some very good points, but they should not be out taking interviews until more evidence is in. The fact that this is being heavily publicized outside of their discipline, and being extrapolated far beyond the sample groups, is a negative indicator for the reliability of the work.

    3. Elizabeth Burton

      You’re confusing the aspiration to merge with perfection with perfectionism, which as Curran points out is an unrelenting focus on being perfect. They are not the same thing.

      At least two generations of school children have been taught that the most important goal of their education is filling in the right bubbles on the standardized tests. The outcome of that competition will literally decided their future, their teachers’ employment, and their schools continued existence. On top of that, they are being loaded down with homework, which decades of studies have shown to be useless in middle school and almost so in high school, that can result in their losing sleep and being unable to participate in the kind of social and family activities that are vital to a child’s healthy development.

      “Education reform,” as the Trump administration and Betsy deVos have now revealed, has turned public education into a competition with the ultimate aim of eliminating it altogether (cf. New Orleans schools post-Katrina and the effort now in progress to impose a similar program in Puerto Rico). When children in kindergarten who should be learning how to learn and socialize with others, are instead undergoing instruction in reading and math, and when eight-year-olds are told to decide what career they want to pursue so the rest of their educational life can be targeted to that end, it’s patently clear that neoliberalism is an infection that needs to be eradicated.

  5. Ed

    The scale-back from perfectionism is the study of performance psychology, or an orientation toward excellence, as exemplified perhaps in Eric Booth’s book “The Everyday Work of Art”, the Flow Theory, the Gallwey series on The Inner Game (especially “The Inner Game of Work), “The Art of Possibility” by the Zanders, “Better” by Atul Gawande, “Confidence” by Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Ellen Langer on mindfulness, sports psychology by Orlick, or almost anything by Richard Strozzi Heckler.

  6. el_tel

    As others have stated, there are some criticisms that can be made of this….but it’s generally on the money. Having neoliberalism cause you to “slide down a snake to square one” in the great snakes and ladders game doesn’t necessarily harm you, but likely does in conjunction with genes and (particularly) environmental factors (such as upbringing, for many of us conducted during the early years of neoliberalism where a hyper-competitive atmosphere meant that failure often increased the odds of personality disorders and meant that it became doubly hard to address mental health issues in adulthood).

    Issues like opioid dependence, dual diagnosis problems (where things like chronic anxiety disorders are self-medicated with alcohol or other non-prescription drugs) are exacerbated when the price of failure is seen to be so high…both in absolute terms and in terms of “it’s a personal failing” rather than a feature of the system.

  7. Sound of the Suburbs

    When you hear that sparsely populated New Zealand has a problem with homelessness, you start to wonder whether this isn’t a design feature.

    The UK and US have it, and even affluent Germany has a problem. (I used to think it was just the UK being as useless as we usually are.)

    Visible homelessness is a good way of motivating you to perform.

    You don’t want to end up like that do you?


    The part that never made any sense to me about the fetishization of standardized testing in education, is that it gets pushed as the only way we can really tell who’s the smartest, hardest working, most qualified, etc., all the way up to graduate level and beyond. And then we turn the students out into the real world where nobody evaluates you using a standardized test: “Well your grades are good, but the other guy had some internships on his resume and his cousin who works here put in a good word for him so we’re hiring him instead.” The only place where standardized tests are heavily used to determine employment is in civil service, which neoliberals deride as for the unqualified and wasteful.

    1. Elizabeth Burton

      The states spend $1.7 billion annually for standardized tests and the materials that accompany them.

    2. John'Ohara

      Because employers aren’t stupid and want to make sure they make a rational hiring decision based on the prospective employee’s qualifications and experiences and not on vague metrics of cognitive ability. So when it comes down to it, no one actually believes that standardized testing is that valuable, but it is important that children are trained to act like it is valuable in order to instill market discipline and bourgeois ethics at a young age.

  9. Enquiring Mind

    To add to the economics connection, recall the generalized concepts of consumer and producer surplus. Your welfare is in play, and you used to win more often. Apply those concepts of surplus and welfare as you had initially to consumption and production, then expand to any type transaction, and extend to influences or limitations on behavior (your emotional, psychic or other welfare) and the fall-out in self-regard.

    The general idea is to identify some asset that may be quantified and then monetized, like Über does for the remaining equity in your car. You as a consumer have producers probing your demand curve all the time with individualized pricing based on any number of factors such as that cookie on your computer, the time of day (e.g., peak-load pricing), your affinity groups (elicit more from this, less from that) or any other measure that allows identifying, implementing a plan and then relieving you of more money.

    Now expand that relieving to concepts beyond money. Look at your time, equanimity, freedom to act or any other aspect of your life or death, or the entailment or serfdom components to be probed. Someone, somewhere, is putting together a business case on how to extract whatever value there may be, as if past extraction or rent-generating cases have not been enough to bludgeon you into submission. Some years ago, the world was introduced to Economic Hitmen, with attendant debt servitude for pliability. That servitude now extends well beyond the mere country-level economic sphere to pervade daily life.

    Examples abound. Crapification of the healthcare process, with endless time on hold, new forms, higher deductibles, exclusions and other charming factors provide a way to move some of what you might recall from the distant past as part of your consumer surplus. You didn’t realize how good you had it. You have been scanned, catalogued, tagged and sorted, for the most part willingly as you are the product.

    No wonder your kids flock to devices for some shelter from modern life. Their circumscribed existences now extend to the opinions, however fleeting or ill-considered, of their frenemies in that list of contacts on Social Media 3.0, or is it 4.0, so hard to keep up with trends. Selfie sticks would seem to be crude weapons for self defense to keep competing poseurs at bay, but those buckle under the weight of any counterattack. Of course, engaging in productive activities in the company of others, even daily chores, hobbies or other positive outward-directed activities, would provide significant benefits.

  10. Anke

    Dear Yves,

    Thank you for a very interesting article.

    A few comments and thoughts:

    1. I fully agree with DJG’s statement that although the study uses only data from the Anglo-sphere, the conclusions are extrapolated way beyond it’s geographic limits. It is true that over the past 20, maybe 30 years, due to the influence of the media (print and TV) many ideas of the Anglo sphere have permeated into non-traditional areas (e.g. Europe and Asia). Nevertheless, the impact (although already damaging enough) is thankfully more limited. I cannot comment on the source of this ethno-centric worldview, but in my opinion, it most likely has something to do with limited language skills among the population and consequently their inability to know and understand other cultures (and therefore appreciate them).

    2. As a European living in the UK I started noticing many years ago that, in spite of Anglos’ higher capability in marketing themselves, people actually tend to be quite insecure, once you scratch below the surface. There tends to be a culture of one-upmanship and a desire to “win the argument” (regardless of the subject or whether one is truly right). From both personal and business experience, I tend to believe that the idea of consensus-based decision-making is more of a European concept, even in (surprise!) Germany.

    3. Although I agree that rankings based on quasi-relevant standardised tests like the GMAT (for which anyone can cram) are completely irrelevant and can only cause stress and anxiety, I am against the broader implication that we should ban altogether any form of tests and that hierarchies are by definition anxiety-inducing. Whether we like it or not, we do not live in a vacuum and life is getting more competitive and we need to have up to date skills. People need to learn new things and gain new skills and tests are a good way for us to know where we are at and whether we are capable to take on a certain level of responsibility. I do not believe in the utopia of a completely flat world – we tried that once and it failed. Hierarchies will always exist (based on looks, intelligence, skill in a craft, etc.) However, in my view it is important to (1) make the transition to each level fair and ensure that everyone bears their right amount of responsibility and (2) ensure that there is a place under the sun for everyone and that because one is not meant to be a Victoria’s Secret super model, an astronaut or the next Warren Buffet one is still perfectly fine and she/he will enjoy a rewarding/beautiful life within society alongside family, friends and colleagues.

    4. Finally, on a more abstract note, in my view the Anglo sphere tends to value people on the amount of money and fame. Unlike in other cultures/societies, doctors, professors and craftsmen are not as highly valued and young people choose their professions based on future financial rewards, not actual passion or innate skills. Of course, one should always be a little bit pragmatic, but not to the point where it leads to completely flawed decisions. I do not know the reasons for this, but in my view it is something quite specific to the Anglo sphere and I suspect it might have something to do with the type of person who is popularised as successful.

    To conclude, I find the topic interesting but its scope is relatively limited to the Anglo sphere. This does not make it irrelevant at all, but I do think that this topic is part of a bigger theme encompassing many aspects of contemporary social structure in the Anglo world. It would be great to see one day a study with a broader scope.


  11. Ed

    I ran across a quote the other day that by “The Passionate Photographer” (Steve Simon) said that shooting quality photographs is a battle between your left brain and your right brain.

    For more on that topic, see Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED talk on her stroke (she’s a neuroanatomist). [I had a left-sided hemiplegic stroke ten years ago and am fuly-recovered.]

    That will help explain this slice of the book “Emotional Intelligence”, by Daniel Goleman, Ph.D.

    “When people are engaged in activities that effortlessly capture and hold their attention, their brain quiets

    Or consult these outlets:–Clinical-and-Sport-Psychology

  12. Jean

    Add to this the modern neurosis of failure to get a computer to do what you want, think or expect it should, plus the absolutely uselessness of “help” in answering questions.

    When it does perform, it is flawless, invisible and beyond the user’s control. The user conforms to the tool. There is no positive feedback as when mastering the use of a hand tool.
    Computers are Manichean. Humans are changing their behavior to fit the machine servants expectations rather than the other way around and thus are expecting other people to perform flawlessly, or, to be seen as defective if not.

    Contrast that with the adaptability of human beings and the oh well of expected behavior, or
    if one really is on a limb, the behavior of a cat.

  13. Kronos

    Spot on. I work at a university and so I see the effects every day. Depression and anxiety are rampant on college campuses because students are being judged daily and under pressure to achieve high grades. Staff are also under pressure because we are not allowed to blame students for failure but instead, blame ourselves. We are pushed to raise retention rates in an upward direction even when they are already high. So what do we do? Admit students who are unprepared and then start the cycle over.

    I place the blame on our cult of efficiency. We worship efficiency and productivity but in reality, much of what we do is unproductive. Look at our health system and the hundreds of thousands of employees passing bills back and forth. The ironic thing is that each medical biller is evaluated on their efficiency! Our finance industry is a rigged game full of people just gaming the system and not actually investing in tangible, productive pursuits. The list is very long. Once we recognize that our whole country is saturated with inefficient organizations and components maybe we can relax a bit. Maybe inefficiency is not so bad after all?

  14. D

    I think the element of Time is missing from the discussion.

    Tech AI™ has ironically (I believe deliberately in all Corporate, Finance and DOD instances) robbed humans of the ability to meditate and ask questions without being at risk of economic instability and danger. That could be seen when people oddly embraced acronymizing entire sentences Online™ (the seed for Twitter!), about 12 or so years ago, because they felt they didn’t have the time to write the whole sentence out, consequently many did not understand what was being said. This was hideously totally synonymous with horrid Corporate AI™ Owners who insisted subordinates phrase a toxic company problem in two sentences or less if they did not want to be fired (e.g. Volkswagen, PG&E in California, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera).

    When one adds 24/7 surveillance to that, I imagine many youth now born into this horror can likely become paralyzed between rushing to be noticed for doing something well and making an error (due to that rushing) – or having too much fun to relieve their horrid stress – that will be pixelized, along with the self protecting, false judgments of their far wealthier, connected and powerful superiors™, forever.

  15. Wade Riddick

    Does modern capitalism encourage neuroticism to better cultivate our connection to pleasure? Perhaps there’s more to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World hypothesis…

    Bear with me.

    Several years ago I read a paper speculating that neuroticism in women might have evolved as a means to garner more attention from a husband in our sometimes polygamous past. They found that more orgasms eased the symptoms – which would point to a higher need/demand for dopamine, a chemical linked to both pleasure and attention.

    Perhaps this neuroticism links to the Facebook “like” button, the carefully cultivated casino-esque random rewards on social media, the addictive pseudofood, our heroin problem and our generally instant gratification society.

  16. Wade Riddick

    My suspicion of a link between neuroticism and dopamine is confirmed.

    “These results suggest that older adults with higher COMT enzymatic activity (GG), therefore lower dopamine level, have lower Neuroticism scores, and higher Agreeableness and Conscientiousness scores. This is consistent with a recent model of phasic and tonic dopamine release suggesting that even though GG genotype is associated with lower tonic dopamine release, the phasic release of dopamine might be optimal for a more adaptive personality profile.”

    I suggest some element in our diet or behavioral environment could be contributing to our neuroticism by altering how our dopamine is produced and recycled. Somebody’s tampering with our pleasure/attention circuits.

    I wonder who that could be?

  17. D

    not with ya there, Wade. At least in the way it was worded.

    Given the historically higher, females are ‘catching up,’ suicide rates of males I would think, truth be told: Males are every bit, and then some, as neurotic as females. (e.g. look at the rates of males who wipe out their entire families in suicide attempts, versus, females).

  18. Cripes

    I have long tried to point out to people that a society that only selects the “best candidate” for everything from trash collector to president both demeans all of us in the lessor 95% , and lies in the pretense that merit prevails over connections and birth. The organizing principle of society one hopes is to create a healthy, productive life for all, or euthanasia, take your pick.

    And rank wealth extraction of the herd, which doesn’t respect any form of “merit” you would recognize.

    But it does create a most useful fiction for overlords to wield against the ruled, while not playing by the same rules themselves.

    Perhaps perfectionism-or else, like Marx’s 19th Christianity, is the 21st century opium of The People, without the ethics, or the promise of a happy afterlife.

  19. Cripes

    Yes, I think the perverse obsession with winners and losers in a hunger games society is a faith based religion for end times.

  20. D

    Ooops, I should have specified (I hadn’t seen your second comment yet, Wade, when I posted my comment) my response was regarding:

    Several years ago I read a paper speculating that neuroticism in women might have evolved as a means to garner more attention from a husband in our sometimes polygamous past. They found that more orgasms eased the symptoms – which would point to a higher need/demand for dopamine, a chemical linked to both pleasure and attention.

    Anyway, addending my last comment, I call utter bullshit on whomever did that study. From my numerous decades of living, males are the ones reliant on physical orgasms to feel functional, versus females, who generally can function quite well without such physical validation from their significant others. A physical kiss and embrace as an equal is far more validating than being ejaculated into, to put it bluntly.

    It does not surprise me that in these Meritocratic times, with our new Gods being: Gates, Ellison, Jobs Ghost, Bezos, Thiel, Musk, Page/Brin/Schultz, Zuckerberg, Kalanick, etcetera, that biological females are still considered synonymous with hysteria and neuroticism .

  21. Chauncey Gardiner

    Food for further consideration given time period correlations, but I think one should be careful not to attribute an overly broad set of psychological issues to neoliberalism. Correlation is not causation, and I suspect a strong inner critic, aka perfectionism, is not solely attributable to one’s economic environment; although the higher incidence of depression and despair among the general population likely is related. For example, I suspect that family systems, religious beliefs and other factors can play a role in one’s “perfectionism”.

    Perhaps the underlying changes in results discussed in the interview are also because of different diagnostics criteria, or because a broader subset of the general population is receiving psychological counseling. The social expectations of family members in the 1950’s as reflected in the contemporary television series of that era suggest this is not a new phenomena.

    I do agree that the pervasive frequent standardized testing within our educational system to establish the metrics of “who wins and who loses” at a very young age is a parody of a market-based system designed to instill neoliberal values and passive acceptance of those values in young children and broader society. Do these metrics have statistical support beyond narrowly defined short-term academic success? Has anyone done studies of the correlation between success at test results and creativity, or proficiency at a craft or trade, or social contributions, or even long-term financial success? In talking to an artist recently who has volunteered at the local high school as a docent with kids who have little interest in participating in what they view as a deeply flawed system, she said that art can save them… literally. Related, the most memorable aspect of an article from Counterpunch on the new Gilded Age that is linked here today was the painting immediately below the headline, titled “Greed”.

    As a respectful aside, I did find myself smiling at the intro to this article and the possibility that one’s inner critic can be critical of itself; i.e., one’s own perfectionism. I found Hal and Sidra Stone’s book, “Embracing Your Inner Critic: Turning Self-criticism into a Creative Asset”, was helpful in understanding how to better manage this at an individual level. Just some thoughts.

  22. rd

    After a few years as a design engineer, I realized that perfection and optimum were two very different things. Chasing perfection usually required focusing on just one or two things that inevitably led to failure because something not focused on became critical.

    So the key was to think broadly and get many aspects “good enough” using logic, simple analyses, and rules of thumb in many cases. Complex “perfect” analysis was reserved for the few things where it appeared it could make a real difference in the design. This reduced the time it took to accomplish the design, reduced the cost of both the design and the final product, and reduced the chance of failure since it was unlikely that something significant had not been thought through.

    I started applying this to my personal life and found it reduced stress significantly. In most cases, there isn’t a unique right answer; instead there is usually a series of potential acceptable outcomes with varying attributes. If you can eliminate the unacceptable processes and outcomes, then usually things work out ok. I think this is the blunder inherent in standardized testing and the focus on university degrees – the assumption that there is only one unique right answer instead of an entire spectrum of acceptable states.

    In the financial world, it is kind of like Markowitz’s “efficient frontier”. Ultimately there is no right answer; instead you have to factor in behavioral responses on how people react to volatility, regret minimization etc. which is different from person to person. So a wide array of asset allocations can work well for most people, so there is no point in perfectionism on this despite the vast sums of money and marketing spent on this.

    Usually people thinking that they selected the “right” course on something are retro-actively justifying the decision to themselves when there was really no way of determining which was the the absolute best course at the time of the decision.

    The Road Not Taken

    Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
    And sorry I could not travel both
    And be one traveler, long I stood
    And looked down one as far as I could
    To where it bent in the undergrowth;

    Then took the other, as just as fair,
    And having perhaps the better claim,
    Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
    Though as for that the passing there
    Had worn them really about the same,

    And both that morning equally lay
    In leaves no step had trodden black.
    Oh, I kept the first for another day!
    Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
    I doubted if I should ever come back.

    I shall be telling this with a sigh
    Somewhere ages and ages hence:
    Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
    I took the one less traveled by,
    And that has made all the difference.

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