Perfectionism and Approximation

Posted: February 10, 2018 in Culture, Economics, Ethics, Idealism, Narrative, Science, Technophilia
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Oddly, there is no really good antonym for perfectionism. Suggestions include sloppiness, carelessness, and disregard. I’ve settled on approximation, which carries far less moral weight. I raise the contrast between perfectionism and approximation because a recent study published in Psychological Bulletin entitled “Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time: A Meta-Analysis of Birth Cohort Differences From 1989 to 2016″ makes an interesting observation. Here’s the abstract:

From the 1980s onward, neoliberal governance in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom has emphasized competitive individualism and people have seemingly responded, in kind, by agitating to perfect themselves and their lifestyles. In this study, the authors examine whether cultural changes have coincided with an increase in multidimensional perfectionism in college students over the last 27 years. Their analyses are based on 164 samples and 41,641 American, Canadian, and British college students, who completed the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale (Hewitt & Flett, 1991) between 1989 and 2016 (70.92% female, Mage = 20.66). Cross-temporal meta-analysis revealed that levels of self-oriented perfectionism, socially prescribed perfectionism, and other-oriented perfectionism have linearly increased. These trends remained when controlling for gender and between-country differences in perfectionism scores. Overall, in order of magnitude of the observed increase, the findings indicate that recent generations of young people perceive that others are more demanding of them, are more demanding of others, and are more demanding of themselves.

The notion of perfection, perfectness, perfectibility, etc. has a long tortured history in philosophy, religion, ethics, and other domains I won’t even begin to unpack. From the perspective of the above study, let’s just say that the upswing in perfectionism is about striving to achieve success, however one assesses it (education, career, relationships, lifestyle, ethics, athletics, aesthetics, etc.). The study narrows its subject group to college students (at the outset of adult life) between 1989 and 2016 and characterizes the social milieu as neoliberal, hyper-competitive, meritocratic, and pressured to succeed in a dog-eat-dog environment. How far back into childhood results of the study (agitation) extend is a good question. If the trope about parents obsessing and competing over preschool admission is accurate (may be just a NYC thang), then it goes all the way back to toddlers. So much for (lost) innocence purchased and perpetuated through late 20th- and early 21st-century affluence. I suspect college students are responding to awareness of two novel circumstances: (1) likelihood they will never achieve levels of success comparable to their own parents, especially financial (a major reversal of historical trends) and (2) recognition that to best enjoy the fruits of life, a quiet, reflective, anonymous, ethical, average life is now quite insufficient. Regarding the second of these, we are inundated by media showing rich celebrities (no longer just glamorous actors/entertainers) balling out of control, and onlookers are enjoined to “keep up.” The putative model is out there, unattainable for most but often awarded by randomness, undercutting the whole enterprise of trying to achieve perfection.

What really interests me is the idea of perfectibility itself and how it stems from faulty metaphors taken mainly from mechanization — a reorientation that began in the Middle Ages with the invention of the mechanical clock and its regimentation of daily life, which later evolved into the clockwork-universe metaphor. The brain-is-a-computer metaphor is probably the worst one, with people straining to embody the indefatigable digital accuracy and volume of computers as information processors despite the human body/mind having a structure or architecture far better suited to approximation. More pointedly, human cognition is about storytelling, the story we continuously tell ourselves as we experience things. Indeed, the improvisational way we actually conduct ourselves through life is highly discontinuous with planning, cause and effect, and design, as though life were meant to possess some paint-by-numbers or plotted-narrative predictability. In thought and action, humans rely upon sufficiency, consistently arriving at thoughts, decisions, and deeds that are good enough in the moment but often characterized by inaccuracy, inefficiency, and impracticality. Correction and refinement may occur later, but not necessarily. Thus, approximation and subjectivity are basic human attributes or features, not bugs in the software. Adopting the pose of objectivity and rationality for better accuracy (and results?) turns out to be a difficult achievement for most, whose critical thinking potential stays in the box, unwrapped and undeveloped.

If/when self-driving vehicles are adopted, they are expected to reduce traffic congestion and accidents. Networked telemetry will outperform human skill by a large measure and with surprisingly low tolerances (space on the road between vehicles). Few unintended consequences have yet been offered, solely in the realm of thought experiment so far, but I can think of several. The principal anticipated disruption is technological unemployment as drivers are handed pink slips. Similarly, according to Yuval Harari (yeah, that guy again), smart algorithms now in development and enabled through Big Data will know us better than we know ourselves and thus be better equipped to make decisions on our behalf optimized for — what exactly? Health? Happiness? Long life? Financial independence? Somebody’s notion of perfection?

Eventually, we may figure that perfection is not only not possible, it’s not optimal. Approximation may not be a glamorous alternative, but it’s within reach and aligned with who and what we are. Putting machines, algorithms, and other nonhuman systems literally and figuratively in the driver’s seat and removing personal agency is not a prescription for human fulfillment even if those systems perform better than we can. As the aphorism instructs, it’s the journey, not the destination, where gripping the wheel (feeling in control if not actually always being in control) is fundamental to the experience. Moreover, the best journeys are undertaken with flexibility, discarding the fixed route of shortest time/distance in favor of side-road spontaneity just to see what’s out there. Life is not simply a machine process built for joyless surrender to regimentation; it’s a wild, messy, risky, unpredictable joyride. On balance, it’s also full of suffering and torment. Embrace it for what it is, not what some team of fascist software engineers supposes it could or should be.


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