Running Head: stress effects on anxiety of perfectionists and depressives

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The Effects of Stress-Provoking Instructions on Anxiety Levels of

Individuals High and Low in Perfectionism and Depression


Skidmore College

Based on previous studies that indicate significant correlations between perfectionism, depression, and anxiety, this study would examine perfectionism and depression as they relate to anxiety under experimental conditions of manipulated stress. Participants’ predisposed levels of perfectionism and depression would be measured initially as either high or low using the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale and the Beck Depression Inventory. After being given either stress-provoking instructions or non-stress-provoking instructions, all participants would complete a standard intelligence test and then be measured on their current anxiety levels using an amended version of the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory. The result would indicate that after being given stress-provoking instructions, participants with high perfectionism-low depression and high perfectionism-high depression should have significantly higher levels of anxiety than both low perfectionism-low depression and low perfectionism-high depression participants. However, when given non-stress-provoking instructions, high perfectionism-high depression participants should have significantly higher levels of anxiety than high perfectionism-low depression, low perfectionism-low depression, and low perfectionism-high depression participants. The implications of this study could have positive influences in the field of education. These findings would highlight the importance of non-stress provoking instructions and the harmful effects that stress-provoking instructions could have students’ anxiety levels in the classroom.

The Effects of Stress-Provoking Instructions on Anxiety Levels of

Individuals High and Low in Perfectionism and Depression

Most individuals want to strive to do their best in many of their endeavors and try to achieve as near to perfection as realistically possible. However, some individuals not only want to attain perfection, but truly believe that perfection is a state that they actually can attain as well. These individuals, known as perfectionists, have been particularly looked at in many recent studies to find reasons for their extreme thoughts and behaviors. Perfectionism has been previously hypothesized to play a role in a wide variety of psychological disorders, specifically depression and anxiety (Flett, Hewitt, Blankstein, & Gray, 1998; Hewitt & Flett, 1991, 1993; Kawamura, Hunt, Frost, & DiBartolo, 2001; Minarik & Ahrens, 1996; Wei, Mallinckrodt, Russell & Abraham, 2004). However, research has been lacking a clear conceptualization on this construct. Many recent conceptualizations have emphasized the multidimensional nature of perfectionism in different ways (Frost, Marten, Lahart, & Rosenblate, 1990; Hewitt & Flett, 1991). For example, Frost et al. (1990) first conceptualized that perfectionism is composed of five dimensions: personal standards, concern over mistakes, parental criticism, parental expectations, and doubts about actions. The “concern over mistakes” dimension reflects individuals’ negative reactions to mistakes, tendencies to relate mistakes with failure, and tendencies to believe that others will not respect them as a result of failure. “Doubts about actions” reflects individuals’ tendencies to doubt the quality of their performance. Previous studies have shown that these two dimensions of perfectionism, “concern over mistakes” and “doubts about actions,” are subscales most strongly related to depression (Frost et al., 1997; Minarik & Ahrens, 1996; Wei et al., 2004). Specifically, Frost et al.’s (1997) study focused on the single dimension of perfectionism where one is concerned over mistakes. They found that perfectionists made the same number and same types of mistakes as non-perfectionists, but were more bothered by mistakes and were more concerned that others would think badly of them for their mistakes. This finding suggests that individuals high in perfectionistic concern over mistakes engage in self-reflection where their performance is compared to an ideal (i.e., perfection) and they form high expectations of themselves in an attempt to achieve this ideal.

Conversely, Hewitt and Flett (1991) conceptualized that perfectionism was identified with three main components: self-oriented perfectionism, other-oriented perfectionism, and socially prescribed perfectionism. Self-oriented perfectionism is described as entailing high self-standards and excessive motivation to attain perfection whereas other-oriented perfectionism is described as involving unrealistic expectations for other individuals. Additionally, socially prescribed perfectionism is described as believing that others are imposing perfectionistic standards and expectations on oneself. Hewitt and Flett (1991) used this multidimensional perspective to examine whether clinically depressed people were characterized by high levels of perfectionism. Their findings show that individuals with depression are characterized only by self-oriented perfectionism. This finding suggests that self-oriented perfectionists may generate their own failures and stressors, which make them prone to depression. Thus, individuals who entail high self-standards and excessive motivation to attain perfection are more prone to depression because they are constantly focusing on their failures and creating additional stress. This notion seems similar to Frost et al.’s (1990) multidimensional concept of perfectionism, specifically the “concern over mistakes” and “doubts about actions” dimensions. As a follow-up study, Hewitt and Flett (1993) found that self-oriented perfectionism may contribute to depression by increasing stress because these individuals place great value on attaining their own standards, strive to meet the standards, but find themselves falling short. This concept seems most similar to Frost et al.’s (1990) “personal standards” dimension of perfectionism in which individuals set very high standards for themselves and additionally place importance on these standards during self-reflection. Hewitt and Flett (1991) also studied if anxiety, in addition to depression, was associated with perfectionism and discovered that anxiety was associated with perfectionism, but only with socially prescribed perfectionism. Thus, individuals who believe that others are imposing standards of perfection and expectations on themselves are more prone to anxiety symptoms.

In comparison to one another, these two conceptualizations of perfectionism both emphasize its multidimensional nature and overlap in basic theory. However, recent studies have criticized Hewitt and Flett’s (1991) subscale that seems to be based on the assumed causes of perfectionism whereas Frost et al.’s (1990) multidimensional approach to perfectionism seems to more clearly define and describe the different components of perfectionism (Rice & Slaney, 2002). Thus, it appears that Frost et al.’s (1990) multidimensional instrument is a more precise and distinguishable measure of perfectionism.

Nonetheless, many correlational studies have used both of these subscales to measure the associations that exist among perfectionism, depression, and anxiety. In fact, there has been some controversy throughout the last decade as to whether depression or anxiety is more closely related to perfectionism. In Minarik and Ahrens’s (1996) study, for instance, they found that when depressive symptoms were controlled, neither overall perfectionism nor any of the perfectionism subscales predicted anxiety symptoms. However, perfectionism was still related to depressive symptoms after controlling for anxiety symptoms. Thus, they proposed that perfectionism may be more specific to depressive than to anxious symptoms. Similarly, Wei et al.’s (2004) study specifically looked at perfectionism in college students and also found it to be positively associated with greater depressive symptoms. Consistent with others, this study further reports that perfectionism interacts with stress to predict depression (Hewitt & Flett, 1993; Wei et al., 2004; Whittaker, 2003). Like Frost et al.’s (1997) study that found perfectionists highly concerned about their mistakes ruminating more about the mistakes after they had occurred, a subsequent study examined psychological distress and the frequency of perfectionist thinking. In this study, Flett et al. (1998) explain that a tendency to engage in excessive perfectionistic thinking (in which individuals automatically think negative thoughts about themselves) should be associated with depressive tendencies. They also believe an association between perfectionism and depression should exist because this constant rumination about their high personal standards would highlight the differences between their actual self and their perceived ideal self, leading to heightened levels of self-reflection. Despite this logic, these data indicated that automatic thoughts involving perfectionism may have a stronger association with symptoms of anxiety than with symptoms of depression. However, the data in Hewitt, Flett, Ediger, Norton, and Flynn’s (1998) study indicates that an excessive focus on the self-attainment of personal goals may play an important role in long-term persistence of depression. In a more recent study, Kawamura, Hunt, Frost, and DiBartolo (2001) suggest that the relationship of anxiety to perfectionism may be due to a discrepancy between anxiety and depression. Consistent with Stober and Jorrman (2001), Kawamura et al. (2001) found that when controlling for depression, perfectionism remained significantly correlated with anxiety. Thus, perfectionism seemed to be related to anxiety without depression as a factor. However, perfectionism appeared to be related to the cognitive, but not necessarily the physical, factors associated with anxiety. Accordingly, Minarik and Ahrens (1996) might not have found a relationship between perfectionism and anxiety independent of depression in their study because they did not use cognitive components of anxiety. Therefore, these findings as a whole indicate that there appears to be an aspect of perfectionism that is related to anxiety and a separate aspect of perfectionism that is related to depression. Moreover, the connection between excessive focus on the self-attainment of personal goals (i.e. a characteristic of both anxiety and perfectionism) and long-term depression indicates a strong association between perfectionism anxiety along with anxiety and depression (Hewitt et al., 1998; Rawson & Bloomer, 1994).

Studies using experimental conditions have further examined anxiety and tested the effects of stressful situations on anxiety. Wine’s (1971) study, for example, discovered that during task performances, highly test-anxious individuals divide their attention between self-relevant and task-relevant variables, in contrast to low-test-anxious individuals who focus their attention more fully on the task. This self-focused cognitive activity diverts attention away from the task and relevant performance cues, challenging effective task performance. Consistent with Wine’s (1971) study, Kurosawa and Harackiewicz (1995) believe that self-focused attention typically produces negative affect because self-attention often makes individuals aware that they fall short of their ideals. Similarly, they found that test-anxious individuals typically perform more poorly under stressful situations than do low test-anxious people. However, highly test-anxious individuals usually perform at least as well as those low in test anxiety if the situation is not stressful. This study is also consistent with Smith and Rockett’s (1958) study, which proposed that highly anxious students should benefit most from anxiety-reducing conditions and actually found that highly anxious students improved under non-anxiety-provoking instructions. Perfectionistic and depressive predispositions may influence individuals in stressful conditions to become more highly anxious than those lacking perfectionistic and depressive tendencies. Thus, these studies may be critical contributions to the understanding of perfectionism as it relates to anxiety and depression.

The current study, unlike the previous studies, would examine perfectionism and depression as they relate to anxiety under experimental conditions. Participants’ predisposed levels of perfectionism and depression would be initially measured as either high or low. Because many studies have suggested that the two dimensions of perfectionism, concern over mistakes and doubts about actions, are the subscales most strongly related to depression, this study would measure participants’ perfectionism levels specifically on these two dimensions. Additionally, because other studies, particularly Smith and Rockett’s (1958) study, have found that individuals’ anxiety levels are affected by situational variables like stress-provoking instructions, participants in this study would be given either stress-provoking or non-stress-provoking instructions before completing an intelligence test. Thus, the purpose of this study would be to investigate if participants with different levels of both perfectionism and depression (high perfectionism-high depression, high perfectionism-low depression, low perfectionism-high depression, and low perfectionism-low depression) would differ in their level of anxiety during an intelligence test when given stress-provoking or non-stress-provoking instructions prior to taking the intelligence test. As a result, this study would hypothesize that giving participants stress-provoking instructions before an intelligence task and giving participants non-stress-provoking instructions before an intelligence task would cause differences in both groups of participants’ level of anxiety. Because previous studies have shown that during stressful situations individuals with high anxiety focus more on themselves and the self-relevant variables compared to the task and become more anxious than during non-stressful situations, this study uses stress-provoking instructions (i.e. this I.Q. test actually measures intelligence and the scores that individuals get on this test are related to their GPA, GRE, and other achievement test scores) to increase the likelihood that participants will become more anxious under stressful conditions. Therefore, the purpose of this study overall would be to see if high and low levels of perfectionism and depression combined with either stress-provoking or non-stress-provoking instructions before an intelligence test would influence individuals’ level of anxiety.


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