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    The benefits of not being perfect

    August 31, 2019

    Many think that perfectionism is a good trait, but it researchers have found it can have a dangerous affect on mental health – and it’s on the rise.
    30 August 2019
    You sit in a job interview, nervously sweating through every question thrown at you, and then comes the hardest one of all: “What is your worst quality?” Being a perfectionist is regularly thought of as a good answer – you might hope your fastidiousness will help you secure the role. But is perfectionism actually a good trait?
    To be a healthy and successful human, you have to learn from your mistakes; and to be able to learn from your mistakes, you have to be comfortable with making them. But in general, perfectionists are not. They tend to avoid making mistakes by sticking to tasks they feel most comfortable with or overreacting to obstacles, feeling more guilt, shame and anger when they do make mistakes.Perfectionism in on the rise and has been linked by to a whole host of mental health problems including depression, anxiety and self-harm. (You can read more about the downsides of perfectionism here).Learn more about the dangerous downsides of perfectionism, by clicking play on the video above


    The dangerous downsides of perfectionism
    Many of us believe perfectionism is a positive. But researchers are finding that it is nothing short of dangerous, leading to a long list of health problems – and that it’s on the rise.

    By Amanda Ruggeri
    21 February 2018
    In one of my earliest memories, I’m drawing. I don’t remember what the picture is supposed to be, but I remember the mistake. My marker slips, an unintentional line appears and my lip trembles. The picture has long since disappeared. But that feeling of deep frustration, even shame, stays with me.

    More often than I’d like to admit, something seemingly inconsequential will cause the same feeling to rear its head again. Something as small as accidentally squashing the panettone I was bringing my boyfriend’s family for Christmas can tumble around in my mind for several days, accompanied by occasional voices like “How stupid!” and “You should have known better”. Falling short of a bigger goal, even when I know achieving it would be near-impossible, can temporarily flatten me. When an agent told me that she knew I was going to write a book someday but that the particular idea I’d pitched her didn’t suit the market, I felt deflated in a gut-punching way that went beyond disappointment. The negative drowned out the positive. “You’re never going to write a book,” my internal voice said. “You’re not good enough.” That voice didn’t care that this directly contradicted what the agent actually said.
    That’s the thing about perfectionism. It takes no prisoners.
    If I’ve struggled with perfectionism, I’m far from alone. The tendency starts young – and it’s becoming more common. Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill’s recent meta-analysis of rates of perfectionism from 1989 to 2016, the first study to compare perfectionism across generations, found significant increases among more recent undergraduates in the US, UK and Canada. In other words, the average college student last year was much more likely to have perfectionistic tendencies than a student in the 1990s or early 2000s.
    It's heading toward an epidemic and public health issue – Katie Rasmussen
    “As many as two in five kids and adolescents are perfectionists,” says Katie Rasmussen, who researches child development and perfectionism at West Virginia University. “We’re starting to talk about how it’s heading toward an epidemic and public health issue.”
    The rise in perfectionism doesn’t mean each generation is becoming more accomplished. It means we’re getting sicker, sadder and even undermining our own potential.

    Perfectionism, after all, is an ultimately self-defeating way to move through the world. It is built on an excruciating irony: making, and admitting, mistakes is a necessary part of growing and learning and being human. It also makes you better at your career and relationships and life in general. By avoiding mistakes at any cost, a perfectionist can make it harder to reach their own lofty goals.

    But the drawback of perfectionism isn’t just that it holds you back from being your most successful, productive self. Perfectionistic tendencies have been linked to a laundry list of clinical issues: depression and anxiety (even in children), self-harm, social anxiety disorder and agoraphobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, binge eating, anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome, insomnia, hoarding, dyspepsia, chronic headaches, and, most damning of all, even early mortality and suicide.

    There are studies that suggest that the higher the perfectionism is, the more psychological disorders you’re going to suffer – Sarah Egan

    “It’s something that cuts across everything, in terms of psychological problems,” says Sarah Egan, a senior research fellow at the Curtin University in Perth who specialises in perfectionism, eating disorders and anxiety. "There aren’t that many other things that do that.

    "There are studies that suggest that the higher the perfectionism is, the more psychological disorders you’re going to suffer.”


    Culturally, we often see perfectionism as a positive. Even saying you have perfectionistic tendencies can come off as a coy compliment to yourself; it’s practically a stock answer to the “What’s your worst trait?” question in job interviews. (Past employers, now you know! I wasn’t just being cute).

    This is where perfectionism gets complicated – and controversial. Some researchers say there is adaptive, or ‘healthy’ perfectionism (characterised by having high standards, motivation and discipline) versus a maladaptive, or ‘unhealthy’ version (when your best never seems good enough and not meeting goals frustrates you). In one study of more than 1,000 Chinese students, researchers found that gifted students were more perfectionistic in the adaptive ways. (Maladaptive perfectionists, on the other hand, were more likely to be non-gifted). And while research shows that maladaptive attributes like beating yourself up for mistakes or feeling like you can’t live up to parental expectations make you more vulnerable to depression, some other studies have shown that ‘adaptive’ aspects like striving for achievement have no effect at all or may even protect you.

    But that isn’t always the case. Simply having high personal standards has been linked to suicide ideation, for example. And even if there sometimes may be upsides to perfectionist thinking, they are minor – and, researchers argue, misunderstood.

    In a 2016 meta-analysis of 43 studies on perfectionism and burnout, for example, Hill and Curran found that athletes, employees and students experienced either a tiny or no benefit from aspects like having very high personal standards, compared to people who didn’t have them. People who expressed more ‘maladaptive’ perfectionism, on the other hand, experienced significantly more burnout.

    Perfectionism isn’t a behaviour. It’s a way of thinking about yourself – Andrew Hill

    “There has been some suggestion that, in some cases, perfectionism might be healthy and desirable. Based upon the 60-odd studies that we’ve done, we think that’s a misunderstanding,” says York St John University’s Hill. “Working hard, being committed, diligent, and so on – these are all desirable features. But for a perfectionist, those are really a symptom, or a side product, of what perfectionism is. Perfectionism isn’t about high standards. It’s about unrealistic standards.

    “Perfectionism isn’t a behaviour. It’s a way of thinking about yourself.”

    In fact, many researchers say that factors often dubbed ‘healthy’ perfectionism, like striving for excellence, aren’t actually perfectionism at all. They’re just conscientiousness – which explains why people with those tendencies often have different outcomes in studies. Perfectionism, they argue, isn’t defined by working hard or setting high goals. It’s that critical inner voice.

    Take the student who works hard and gets a poor mark. If she tells herself: “I’m disappointed, but it’s okay; I’m still a good person overall,” that’s healthy. If the message is: “I’m a failure. I’m not good enough,” that’s perfectionism.

    That inner voice criticises different things for different people – work, relationships, tidiness, fitness. My own tendencies may differ greatly from somebody else’s. It can take someone who knows me well to pick up on them. (When I messaged my partner I was writing this story, he immediately sent back a long line of laughing emojis).

    Perfectionists feel every bump in the road. They’re quite stress-sensitive – Hill

    As a result, perfectionists and non-perfectionists “might look the same for a short period of time from a distance. But when you get up close and observe them over time, conscientious people have more adaptive ways of coping with things when things go wrong,” Hill says. “Perfectionists feel every bump in the road. They’re quite stress-sensitive.”

    Perfectionists can make smooth sailing into a storm, a brief ill wind into a category-five hurricane. At the very least, they perceive it that way. And, because the ironies never end, the behaviours perfectionists adapt ultimately, actually, do make them more likely to fail.

    In one lab experiment, for example, Hill gave both perfectionists and non-perfectionists specific goals. What he didn’t tell them was that the test was rigged: none of them would succeed. Interestingly, both groups kept putting in the same amount of effort. But one group felt much unhappier about the whole thing – and gave up earlier. Guess which.

    Faced with failure, “perfectionists tend to respond more harshly in terms of emotions. They experience more guilt, more shame,” says Hill. They also experience more anger.

    “They give up more easily. They have quite avoidant coping tendencies when things can't be perfect.”

    That, of course, hinders them from the very success that they want to achieve. In his 60-plus studies focusing on athletes, for example, Hill has found that the single biggest predictor of success in sports is simply practice. But if practice isn’t going well, perfectionists might stop.

    It makes me think of my own childhood peppered with avoiding (or starting and quitting) almost every sport there was. If I wasn’t adept at something almost from the get-go, I didn’t want to continue – especially if there was an audience watching. In fact, multiple studies have found a correlation between perfectionism and performance anxiety even in children as young as 10.

    The trouble is that, for perfectionists, performance is intertwined with their sense of self. When they don’t succeed, they don’t just feel disappointment about how they did. They feel shame about who they are. Ironically, perfectionism then becomes a defence tactic to keep shame at bay: if you’re perfect, you never fail, and if you never fail, there’s no shame.

    As a result, the pursuit of perfection becomes a vicious cycle – and, because it’s impossible to be perfect, a fruitless one.


    Perfectionism is also dangerous. Record numbers of young people are experiencing mental illness, according to the World Health Organisation. Depression, anxiety and suicide ideation are more common in the US, Canada and the UK now than a decade ago. Research shows that perfectionistic tendencies predict issues like depression, anxiety and stress – even when researchers controlled for traits like neuroticism. Worsening matters, being self-critical might lead to depressive symptoms but those symptoms then can make self-criticism worse, closing a distressing loop.

    Mental health problems aren’t just caused by perfectionism; some of these problems can lead to perfectionism, too. One recent study, for example, found that over a one-year period, college students who had social anxiety were more likely to become perfectionists – but not vice versa.

    It’s also been shown that one of the most robust protections against anxiety and depression is self-compassion – the very thing that perfectionists lack. And self-criticism, which perfectionists are so good at, predicts depression.

    Nearly every perfectionistic tendency – including simply having high personal standards – was correlated with thinking about suicide more frequently

    When it comes to the most dramatic example, suicide, numerous studies also have found that perfectionism is a lethal contributor all on its own. One found that perfectionism made depressed patients more likely to think about suicide even above and beyond feelings of hopelessness. A recent meta-analysis, the most complete on the suicide-perfectionism link to date, found that nearly every perfectionistic tendency – including being concerned over mistakes, feeling like you are never good enough, having critical parents, or simply having high personal standards – was correlated with thinking about suicide more frequently. (The two exceptions: being organised or demanding of others).

    Some of those criteria, particularly pressure from parents and perfectionistic concerns, also were correlated with more suicide attempts.

    “Black-and-white thinking can lead perfectionists to interpret failures as catastrophes that, in extreme circumstances, are seen as warranting death,” the researchers wrote. “Our findings also join a wider literature suggesting that when people experience their social world as pressure-filled, judgmental, and hypercritical, they think about and/or engage in various potential means of escape (eg, alcohol misuse and binge eating), including suicide.”

    And while conscientious people tend to live longer, perfectionists die earlier.

    In many ways, poorer health outcomes for perfectionists aren’t that surprising. “Perfectionists are pretty much awash with stress. Even when it’s not stressful, they’ll typically find a way to make it stressful,” says Gordon Flett, who has studied perfectionism for more than 30 years and whose assessment scale developed with Paul Hewitt is considered a gold standard

    Plus, he says, if your perfectionism finds an outlet in, say, workaholism, it’s unlikely you’ll take many breaks to relax – which we now know both our bodies and brains require for healthy functioning.


    No matter how self-defeating perfectionism may seem, it’s a tendency being shared by more and more people. The meta-analysis by Hill and Curran is the first to comprehensively look at rates of perfectionism over a long period of time. (There are so many ways of measuring perfectionism out there, researchers had to wait until a solid one – in this case, Flett’s and Hewitt’s – had been around long enough and been used across enough studies). In all, the studies added up to a pool of more than 40,000 US, UK and Canadian undergraduate students.

    There were increases in every type of perfectionism from 1989 to 2016

    There were increases across the board from 1989 to 2016. But the largest rise was in ‘socially prescribed perfectionism’, characterised by the feeling that others have high demands: 32%. “The reason that’s so problematic is that’s the dimension most strongly correlated with serious mental illness,” says Curran.

    The findings align with what’s been reported previously. One 2015 study of gifted suburban adolescents, for example, found “significantly higher scores of perfectionism (especially unhealthy dimensions) than previous studies”. A decade-long look at adolescent Czech math whizzes found the same.

    In her clinical practice, where she often works with patients with eating disorders, Egan has seen it too. “I’m constantly shocked by the age ranges. We’re seeing younger and younger presentations of girls: seven years old, eight years old,” she says. “That’s often driven by perfectionism. So, I think, yes: each generation probably is getting more perfectionistic.”

    Where is this increase coming from? When you keep in mind the idea that perfectionism stems from marrying your identity with your achievements, the question might become: where isn’t it coming from?

    After all, many of us live in societies where the first question when you meet someone is what you do for a living. Where we are so literally valued for the quality and extent of our accomplishments that those achievements often correlate, directly, to our ability to pay rent or put food on the table. Where complete strangers weigh these on-paper values to determine everything from whether we can rent that flat or buy that car or receive that loan. Where we then signal our access to those resources with our appearance – these shoes, that physique – and other people weigh that, in turn, to see if we’re the right person for a job interview or dinner invitation.

    Curran and Hill have a similar hunch. “Failure is so severe in a market-based society,” points out Curran, adding that that has been intensified as governments have chipped away at social safety nets. Competition even has been embedded in schools: take standardised testing and high-pressure university entrances. As a result, Curran says, it’s no wonder that parents are putting more pressure on themselves – and on their children – to achieve more and more.

    “If the focus is on achievement, then kids become very averse to mistakes,” Curran says. “If children come to internalise that – the idea that we only can define ourselves in strict, narrow terms of achievement – then you see perfectionistic tendencies start to come in.” One longitudinal study, for example, found that a focus on academic achievement predicts a later increase in perfectionism.

    Similarly, the gold-star method of parenting and schooling may have had an effect. If you get praised whenever you do something well and not praised when you don’t, you can learn that you’re only really worth something when you’ve had others’ approval.

    If the focus is on achievement, then kids become very averse to mistakes – Thomas Curran

    If other strategies, like making children feel guilty for making a mistake, come in, it can get even more problematic. Research has found that these types of parental tactics make children more likely to be perfectionists – and, later, to develop depression.

    Fear of failure is getting magnified in other ways, too. Take social media: make a mistake today and your fear that it might be broadcast, even globally, is hardly irrational. At the same time, all of those glossy feeds reinforce unrealistic standards.

    Some perfectionism is inheritable. But it also arises because of environment (after all, if it were just genetic, it seems unlikely it would be increasing so much). So how can parents counteract it? Model good behaviour by watching their own perfectionistic tendencies, researchers say. And exhibit unconditional love and affection.

    It’s about creating an environment where imperfection isn’t just accepted but is celebrated, because it means we’re human – Rasmussen

    “It’s saying things like ‘You really tried hard at that. I’m proud of the effort you put in.’ It’s about creating an environment where imperfection isn’t just accepted but is celebrated – because it means we’re human,” says Rasmussen, who co-authored an analysis on how family systems can breed perfectionism. “Or communicating to the child that love and care aren’t conditional on performance.

    “It’s the idea that you don’t have to be perfect to be lovable or to be loved.”


    Perfectionism can be a particular challenge to treat. You can train someone to be more self-compassionate in a therapeutic setting. But if they go back to the office, say, with the same demanding boss and same deep-seated behaviours, a lot of that can go out the door.

    Then, of course, there is that widespread (if erroneous) belief that being a perfectionist makes us better workers (or parents, or athletes, or whatever the task is at hand).

    What makes it different than depression or anxiety is that the person often values it – Egan

    “The difficult part of it, and what makes it different than depression or anxiety, is that the person often values it,” says Egan. “If we have anxiety or depression, we don’t value those symptoms. We want to get rid of them. When we see a person with perfectionism, they can often be ambivalent towards change. People say it brings them benefits.”

    She’s helped her patients by helping them prove to themselves that’s not the case. If someone says, for example, they need to do three extra hours of work at home each night to be good at their job, they might experiment with not doing that for a week. Usually the patient not only finds that it makes no difference – but that the extra rest might even improve their performance.

    I’ve experimented with some of that letting go myself. It’s gone hand-in-hand with becoming aware when I’m taking on too much and exhausting myself in my attempt to do ‘enough’ (an amount, I’ve realised, that for me doesn’t actually exist).

    The bigger piece, though, is replacing that critical ticker-tape with kinder messages – toward both myself and others. I’ve started (with varying success) consciously stopping myself from overreacting to other people’s mistakes. More difficult, but also important, has been stopping myself from overreacting to my own. Ironically, that includes trying not to criticise myself when I fall short of that goal in itself.

    It’s a work in progress. But what I’ve noticed is that, each time I’m able to replace criticising and perfecting with compassion, I feel not only less stressed, but freer. Apparently, that’s not unusual.

    “It can be liberating, allowing imperfection to happen and accepting it and celebrating it,” Rasmussen says. “Because it’s exhausting, maintaining all of that.”
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    #LikeMinded Social Media
    Is social media bad for you? The evidence and the unknowns
    What the science suggests so far about the impact of platforms such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram on your mental well-being.

    By Jessica Brown
    5 January 2018


    A special series about social media and well-being

    This month, BBC Future is exploring social media’s impact on mental health and well-being – and seeking solutions for a happier, healthier experience on these platforms. Stay tuned for more stories, coming soon…

    Share your tips for a happy life on social media with the hashtag #LikeMinded on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

    This story is featured in BBC Future’s “Best of 2018” collection. Discover more of our picks.

    Three billion people, around 40% of the world’s population, use online social media – and we’re spending an average of two hours every day sharing, liking, tweeting and updating on these platforms, according to some reports. That breaks down to around half a million tweets and Snapchat photos shared every minute.

    With social media playing such a big part in our lives, could we be sacrificing our mental health and well-being as well as our time? What does the evidence actually suggest?

    Facebook responds to mental well-being claims
    Is it time to rethink how we use social media? An introduction to our #LikeMinded season
    Since social media is relatively new to us, conclusive findings are limited. The research that does exist mainly relies on self-reporting, which can often be flawed, and the majority of studies focus on Facebook. That said, this is a fast-growing area of research, and clues are beginning to emerge. BBC Future reviewed the findings of some of the science so far:


    People use social media to vent about everything from customer service to politics, but the downside to this is that our feeds often resemble an endless stream of stress. In 2015, researchers at the Pew Research Center based in Washington DC sought to find out if social media induces more stress than it relieves.

    In the survey of 1,800 people, women reported being more stressed than men. Twitter was found to be a “significant contributor” because it increased their awareness of other people’s stress.

    But Twitter also acted as a coping mechanism – and the more women used it, the less stressed they were. The same effect wasn’t found for men, whom the researchers said had a more distant relationship with social media. Overall, the researchers concluded that social media use was linked to “modestly lower levels” of stress.


    In 2014, researchers in Austria found that participants reported lower moods after using Facebook for 20 minutes compared to those who just browsed the internet. The study suggested that people felt that way because they saw it as a waste of time.

    A good or bad mood may also spread between people on social media, according to researchers from the University of California, who assessed the emotional content of over a billion status updates from more than 100 million Facebook users between 2009 and 2012.

    Bad weather increased the number of negative posts by 1%, and the researchers found that one negative post by someone in a rainy city influenced another 1.3 negative posts by friends living in dry cities. The better news is that happy posts had a stronger influence; each one inspired 1.75 more happy posts. Whether a happy post translates to a genuine boost in mood, however, remains unclear.


    Researchers have looked at general anxiety provoked by social media, characterised by feelings of restlessness and worry, and trouble sleeping and concentrating. A study published in the journal Computers and Human Behaviour found that people who report using seven or more social media platforms were more than three times as likely as people using 0-2 platforms to have high levels of general anxiety symptoms.

    That said, it’s unclear if and how social media causes anxiety. Researchers from Babes-Bolyai University in Romania reviewed existing research on the relationship between social anxiety and social networking in 2016, and said the results were mixed. They concluded that more research needs to be done.


    While some studies have found a link between depression and social media use, there is emerging research into how social media can actually be a force for good.

    Two studies involving more than 700 students found that depressive symptoms, such as low mood and feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness, were linked to the quality of online interactions. Researchers found higher levels of depressive symptoms among those who reported having more negative interactions.

    A similar study conducted in 2016 involving 1,700 people found a threefold risk of depression and anxiety among people who used the most social media platforms. Reasons for this, they suggested, include cyber-bullying, having a distorted view of other people’s lives, and feeling like time spent on social media is a waste.

    However, as BBC Future will explore this month in our #LikeMinded season, scientists are also looking at how social media can be used to diagnose depression, which could help people receive treatment earlier. Researchers for Microsoft surveyed 476 people and analysed their Twitter profiles for depressive language, linguistic style, engagement and emotion. From this, they developed a classifier that can accurately predict depression before it causes symptoms in seven out of 10 cases.

    Researchers from Harvard and Vermont Universities analysed 166 people’s Instagram photos to create a similar tool last year with the same success rate.


    Humans used to spend their evenings in darkness, but now we’re surrounded by artificial lighting all day and night. Research has found that this can inhibit the body’s production of the hormone melatonin, which facilitates sleep – and blue light, which is emitted by smartphone and laptop screens, is said to be the worst culprit. In other words, if you lie on the pillow at night checking Facebook and Twitter, you’re headed for restless slumber.

    Last year, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh asked 1,700 18- to 30-year-olds about their social media and sleeping habits. They found a link with sleep disturbances – and concluded blue light had a part to play. How often they logged on, rather than time spent on social media sites, was a higher predictor of disturbed sleep, suggesting “an obsessive ‘checking’”, the researchers said.

    The researchers say this could be caused by physiological arousal before sleep, and the bright lights of our devices can delay circadian rhythms. But they couldn’t clarify whether social media causes disturbed sleep, or if those who have disturbed sleep spend more time on social media.


    Despite the argument from a few researchers that tweeting may be harder to resist than cigarettes and alcohol, social media addiction isn’t included in the latest diagnostic manual for mental health disorders.

    That said, social media is changing faster than scientists can keep up with, so various groups are trying to study compulsive behaviours related to its use – for example, scientists from the Netherlands have invented their own scale to identify possible addiction.

    And if social media addiction does exist, it would be a type of internet addiction – and that is a classified disorder. In 2011, Daria Kuss and Mark Griffiths from Nottingham Trent University in the UK have analysed 43 previous studies on the matter, and conclude that social media addiction is a mental health problem that “may” require professional treatment. They found that excessive usage was linked to relationship problems, worse academic achievement and less participation in offline communities, and found that those who could be more vulnerable to a social media addiction include those dependent on alcohol, the highly extroverted, and those who use social media to compensate for fewer ties in real life.


    Women’s magazines and their use of underweight and Photoshopped models have been long maligned for stirring self-esteem issues among young women. But now, social media, with its filters and lighting and clever angles, is taking over as a primary concern among some campaigning groups and charities.

    Social media sites make more than half of users feel inadequate, according to a survey of 1,500 people by disability charity Scope, and half of 18- to 34-year-olds say it makes them feel unattractive.

    A 2016 study by researchers at Penn State University suggested that viewing other people’s selfies lowered self-esteem, because users compare themselves to photos of people looking their happiest. Research from the University of Strathclyde, Ohio University and University of Iowa also found that women compare themselves negatively to selfies of other women.

    But it’s not just selfies that have the potential to dent self-esteem. A study of 1,000 Swedish Facebook users found that women who spent more time on Facebook reported feeling less happy and confident. The researchers concluded: “When Facebook users compare their own lives with others’ seemingly more successful careers and happy relationships, they may feel that their own lives are less successful in comparison.”

    But one small study hinted that viewing your own profile, not others, might offer ego boosts. Researchers at Cornell University in New York put 63 students into different groups. Some sat with a mirror placed against a computer screen, for instance, while others sat in front of their own Facebook profile.

    Facebook had a positive effect on self-esteem compared to other activities that boost self-awareness. Mirrors and photos, the researchers explained, make us compare ourselves to social standards, whereas looking at our own Facebook profiles might boost self-esteem because it is easier to control how we’re presented to the world.


    In a study from 2013, researchers texted 79 participants five times a day for 14 days, asking them how they felt and how much they’d used Facebook since the last text. The more time people spent on the site, the worse they felt later on, and the more their life satisfaction declined over time.

    But other research has found, that for some people, social media can help boost their well-being. Marketing researchers Jonah Berger and Eva Buechel found that people who are emotionally unstable are more likely to post about their emotions, which can help them receive support and bounce back after negative experiences.

    Overall, social media’s effects on well-being are ambiguous, according to a paper written last year by researchers from the Netherlands. However, they suggested there is clearer evidence for the impact on one group of people: social media has a more negative effect on the well-being of those who are more socially isolated.


    If you’ve ever been talking to a friend who’s pulled their phone out to scroll through Instagram, you might have wondered what social media is doing to relationships.

    Even the mere presence of a phone can interfere with our interactions, particularly when we’re talking about something meaningful, according to one small study. Researchers writing in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships tasked 34 pairs of strangers with having a 10-minute conversation about an interesting event that had happened to them recently. Each pair sat in private booths, and half had a mobile phone on the top of their table.

    Those with a phone in eyeshot were less positive when recalling their interaction afterwards, had less meaningful conversations and reported feeling less close to their partner than the others, who had a notebook on top of the table instead.

    Romantic relationships aren’t immune, either. Researchers at the University of Guelph in Canada surveyed 300 people aged 17-24 in 2009 about any jealousy they felt when on Facebook, asking questions such as, ‘How likely are you to become jealous after your partner has added an unknown member of the opposite sex?’.

    Women spent much more time on Facebook then men, and experienced significantly more jealousy when doing so. The researchers concluded they “felt the Facebook environment created these feelings and enhanced concerns about the quality of their relationship”.


    In a study involving 600 adults, roughly a third said social media made them feel negative emotions – mainly frustration – and envy was the main cause. This was triggered by comparing their lives to others’, and the biggest culprit was other people’s travel photos. Feeling envious caused an “envy spiral”, where people react to envy by adding to their profiles more of the same sort of content that made them jealous in the first place.

    However, envy isn’t necessarily a destructive emotion – it can often make us work harder, according to researchers from Michigan University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. They asked 380 students to look at “envy-eliciting” photos and texts from Facebook and Twitter, including posts about buying expensive goods, travelling and getting engaged. But the type of envy the researchers found is “benign envy”, which they say is more likely to make a person work harder.


    A study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine last year surveyed 7,000 19- to 32-year-olds and found that those who spend the most time on social media were twice as likely to report experiencing social isolation, which can include a lack of a sense of social belonging, engagement with others and fulfilling relationships.

    Spending more time on social media, the researchers said, could displace face-to-face interaction, and can also make people feel excluded.

    “Exposure to such highly idealised representations of peers’ lives may elicit feelings of envy and the distorted belief that others lead happier and more successful lives, which may increase perceived social isolation.”


    It’s clear that in many areas, not enough is known yet to draw many strong conclusions. However, the evidence does point one way: social media affects people differently, depending on pre-existing conditions and personality traits.

    As with food, gambling and many other temptations of the modern age, excessive use for some individuals is probably inadvisable. But at the same time, it would be wrong to say social media is a universally bad thing, because clearly it brings myriad benefits to our lives.

    We’ll be exploring this tension more over the next month, in a series of articles and videos in our special series #LikeMinded – and hopefully providing solutions that could help us all live a happier, healthier digital life.

    It's hard to be the smartest person in the room (Credit: Getty Images)
    Best of 2015 Psychology Brain
    The surprising downsides of being clever
    Can high intelligence be a burden rather than a boon? David Robson investigates.

    By David Robson
    14 April 2015
    If ignorance is bliss, does a high IQ equal misery? Popular opinion would have it so. We tend to think of geniuses as being plagued by existential angst, frustration, and loneliness. Think of Virginia Woolf, Alan Turing, or Lisa Simpson – lone stars, isolated even as they burn their brightest. As Ernest Hemingway wrote: “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.”

    Best of 2015

    Our top stories

    This is part of BBC Future’s “Best of 2015” list, our greatest hits of the year, including:

    - How dark is your personality?
    - The dystopian lake filled by the world’s tech lust
    - How to spot a liar
    - The downsides of being drop dead gorgeous

    …and much more. Browse the full list.

    The question may seem like a trivial matter concerning a select few – but the insights it offers could have ramifications for many. Much of our education system is aimed at improving academic intelligence; although its limits are well known, IQ is still the primary way of measuring cognitive abilities, and we spend millions on brain training and cognitive enhancers that try to improve those scores. But what if the quest for genius is itself a fool’s errand?

    The first steps to answering these questions were taken almost a century ago, at the height of the American Jazz Age. At the time, the new-fangled IQ test was gaining traction, after proving itself in World War One recruitment centres, and in 1926, psychologist Lewis Terman decided to use it to identify and study a group of gifted children. Combing California’s schools for the creme de la creme, he selected 1,500 pupils with an IQ of 140 or more – 80 of whom had IQs above 170. Together, they became known as the “Termites”, and the highs and lows of their lives are still being studied to this day.

    The Termites’ average salary was twice that of the average white-collar job

    As you might expect, many of the Termites did achieve wealth and fame – most notably Jess Oppenheimer, the writer of the classic 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy. Indeed, by the time his series aired on CBS, the Termites’ average salary was twice that of the average white-collar job. But not all the group met Terman’s expectations – there were many who pursued more “humble” professions such as police officers, seafarers, and typists. For this reason, Terman concluded that “intellect and achievement are far from perfectly correlated”. Nor did their smarts endow personal happiness. Over the course of their lives, levels of divorce, alcoholism and suicide were about the same as the national average.

    As the Termites enter their dotage, the moral of their story – that intelligence does not equate to a better life – has been told again and again. At best, a great intellect makes no differences to your life satisfaction; at worst, it can actually mean you are less fulfilled.

    That’s not to say that everyone with a high IQ is a tortured genius, as popular culture might suggest – but it is nevertheless puzzling. Why don’t the benefits of sharper intelligence pay off in the long term?


    A weighty burden

    One possibility is that knowledge of your talents becomes something of a ball and chain. Indeed, during the 1990s, the surviving Termites were asked to look back at the events in their 80-year lifespan. Rather than basking in their successes, many reported that they had been plagued by the sense that they had somehow failed to live up to their youthful expectations.

    That sense of burden – particularly when combined with others’ expectations – is a recurring motif for many other gifted children. The most notable, and sad, case concerns the maths prodigy Sufiah Yusof. Enrolled at Oxford University aged 12, she dropped out of her course before taking her finals and started waitressing. She later worked as a call girl.

    Sufiah Yusof, a child prodigy, enrolled at Oxford aged 12 but later dropped out and worked as a call girl

    Another common complaint, often heard in student bars and internet forums, is that smarter people somehow have a clearer vision of the world’s failings. Whereas the rest of us are blinkered from existential angst, smarter people lay awake agonising over the human condition or other people’s folly.

    Constant worrying may, in fact, be a sign of intelligence – but not in the way these armchair philosophers had imagined. Interviewing students on campus about various topics of discussion, Alexander Penney at MacEwan University in Canada found that those with the higher IQ did indeed feel more anxiety throughout the day. Interestingly, most worries were mundane, day-to-day concerns, though; the high-IQ students were far more likely to be replaying an awkward conversation, than asking the “big questions”. “It’s not that their worries were more profound, but they are just worrying more often about more things,” says Penney. “If something negative happened, they thought about it more.”

    Probing more deeply, Penney found that this seemed to correlate with verbal intelligence – the kind tested by word games in IQ tests, compared to prowess at spatial puzzles (which, in fact, seemed to reduce the risk of anxiety). He speculates that greater eloquence might also make you more likely to verbalise anxieties and ruminate over them. It’s not necessarily a disadvantage, though. “Maybe they were problem-solving a bit more than most people,” he says – which might help them to learn from their mistakes.

    Mental blind spots

    The harsh truth, however, is that greater intelligence does not equate to wiser decisions; in fact, in some cases it might make your choices a little more foolish. Keith Stanovich at the University of Toronto has spent the last decade building tests for rationality, and he has found that fair, unbiased decision-making is largely independent of IQ. Consider the “my-side bias” – our tendency to be highly selective in the information we collect so that it reinforces our previous attitudes. The more enlightened approach would be to leave your assumptions at the door as you build your argument – but Stanovich found that smarter people are almost no more likely to do so than people with distinctly average IQs.

    People who ace cognitive tests are more likely to see past their own flaws

    That’s not all. People who ace standard cognitive tests are in fact slightly more likely to have a “bias blind spot”. That is, they are less able to see their own flaws, even when though they are quite capable of criticising the foibles of others. And they have a greater tendency to fall for the “gambler’s fallacy” – the idea that if a tossed coin turns heads 10 times, it will be more likely to fall tails on the 11th. The fallacy has been the ruination of roulette players planning for a red after a string of blacks, and it can also lead stock investors to sell their shares before they reach peak value – in the belief that their luck has to run out sooner or later.

    A tendency to rely on gut instincts rather than rational thought might also explain why a surprisingly high number of Mensa members believe in the paranormal; or why someone with an IQ of 140 is about twice as likely to max out their credit card.

    Indeed, Stanovich sees these biases in every strata of society. “There is plenty of dysrationalia – people doing irrational things despite more than adequate intelligence – in our world today,” he says. “The people pushing the anti-vaccination meme on parents and spreading misinformation on websites are generally of more than average intelligence and education.” Clearly, clever people can be dangerously, and foolishly, misguided.

    So if intelligence doesn’t lead to rational decisions and a better life, what does? Igor Grossmann, at the University of Waterloo in Canada, thinks we need to turn our minds to an age-old concept: “wisdom”. His approach is more scientific that it might at first sound. “The concept of wisdom has an ethereal quality to it,” he admits. “But if you look at the lay definition of wisdom, many people would agree it’s the idea of someone who can make good unbiased judgement.”

    In one experiment, Grossmann presented his volunteers with different social dilemmas – ranging from what to do about the war in Crimea to heartfelt crises disclosed to Dear Abby, the Washington Post’s agony aunt. As the volunteers talked, a panel of psychologists judged their reasoning and weakness to bias: whether it was a rounded argument, whether the candidates were ready to admit the limits of their knowledge – their “intellectual humility” – and whether they were ignoring important details that didn’t fit their theory.

    High scores turned out to predict greater life satisfaction, relationship quality, and, crucially, reduced anxiety and rumination – all the qualities that seem to be absent in classically smart people. Wiser reasoning even seemed to ensure a longer life – those with the higher scores were less likely to die over intervening years. Crucially, Grossmann found that IQ was not related to any of these measures, and certainly didn’t predict greater wisdom. “People who are very sharp may generate, very quickly, arguments [for] why their claims are the correct ones – but may do it in a very biased fashion.”

    Learnt wisdom

    In the future, employers may well begin to start testing these abilities in place of IQ; Google has already announced that it plans to screen candidates for qualities like intellectual humility, rather than sheer cognitive prowess.

    Fortunately, wisdom is probably not set in stone – whatever your IQ score. “I’m a strong believer that wisdom can be trained,” says Grossmann. He points out that we often find it easier to leave our biases behind when we consider other people, rather than ourselves. Along these lines, he has found that simply talking through your problems in the third person (“he” or “she”, rather than “I”) helps create the necessary emotional distance, reducing your prejudices and leading to wiser arguments. Hopefully, more research will suggest many similar tricks.

    The challenge will be getting people to admit their own foibles. If you’ve been able to rest on the laurels of your intelligence all your life, it could be very hard to accept that it has been blinding your judgement. As Socrates had it: the wisest person really may be the one who can admit he knows nothing.


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