What does it mean to be a perfectionist? In truth, there’s no simple answer to that question, yet Dr. Joachim Stoeber, a professor at the University of Kent, has illuminated some of the traits that go hand-in-hand with each of the three types recognized by psychologists. His new study finds the kind of perfectionist known as other-oriented — those who want others to meet impossibly high standards — tend to be narcissistic and antisocial with a mean-spirited sense of humor.

In fact, they “show unique positive relationships with the Dark Triad personality traits (narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy) and unique negative relationships with nurturance, intimacy, and social development goals,” Stoeber noted in his study.


Personality Models

Over the past couple of decades, psychologists have drawn a more nuanced picture of those who strive for flawlessness. In 1991, Hewitt and Flett’s model of perfectionism identified multidimensional aspects of this personality trait and differentiated three main forms: self-oriented, socially-prescribed, and other-oriented perfectionists. Self-oriented perfectionists set exceedingly high standards for themselves and strive to meet them. By contrast, socially prescribed perfectionists feel the high standards they wish to meet have been set by others; this type of perfectionist believes acceptance by others is conditional upon meeting such standards.

While both types tend to be highly self-critical, many studies suggest the latter style of perfectionism may be self-destructive as their attempt at flawlessness is likely to mesh with neuroticism, maladaptive coping, and negativity.

Yet, one final style of perfectionism also exists: those who are other-oriented, as the name indicates, expect others to be perfect and they become critical when others fail to meet such expectations.

"Like most personality characteristics, other-oriented perfectionism is what we call normally distributed," Stoeber told Medical Daily. "Most people have medium levels of other-oriented perfectionism, a few have high levels of other-oriented perfectionism, and a few low levels." He further explained that there's overlap between the three forms with some people, though primarily displaying one type, have elements of the other two types. "Perfectionism can be what we call domain-specific," Stoeber also said, so that "some people are perfectionistic only in certain domains of life."

Past studies have linked those who fit into the other-oriented category with off-putting behaviors. Naturally researchers have wondered, What other characteristics go along with this trait? For the current study, Stoeber examined 229 university students to investigate how the three forms of perfectionism relate to humor, emotionality, self-interest, and self-regard, among other key traits.

What he discovered helps to more clearly differentiate the three types of perfectionists.

The self-oriented perfectionists showed an interest in others. They preferred affiliative humor — jokes that boost positive social feelings — and shy away from mean-spirited wit. Importantly, they lacked callous or uncaring traits and also showed themselves to be less competitive in nature.

Socially-prescribed perfectionists, by contrast, made self-depreciating jokes and ranked low on the scale of self-esteem and self-regard. Additionally, they tended to be unemotional and also a bit antisocial.

Far more antisocial were the other-oriented perfectionists, who enjoyed making jokes at the expense of others and generally displayed callousness. At the same time, they had high self-regard and a sense of superiority, and so found it difficult to fit into a wider social circle.

"The findings provide further evidence that [other-oriented perfectionism] is a 'dark' form of perfectionism positively associated with narcissistic, antisocial, and uncaring personality characteristics," wrote Stoeber in his conclusion.

Interestingly, some past studies have linked perfectionism, no matter its flavor, with problematic family functioning and harsh early experiences, which may include childhood bullying (physical or verbal) and unsympathetic, punitive parenting. Seems we all would be wise to remember the word personality comes from the Latin persona, which simply means "mask."

Source: Stoeber J. How other-oriented perfectionism differs from self-oriented and socially prescribed perfectionism: Further findings. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment. 2015.