Science & Tech

student studying
Participants in Dr.Vaillancourt's study were first recruited when they were in fifth grade. Image: Pexels/Stock
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Research stemmed from Dr.Vaillancourt’s curiosity to understand ordering of high achieving mentality

Dr.Tracy Vaillancourt is a full professor at the University of Ottawa, where she is cross-appointed in counselling psychology at the faculty of education and in the school of psychology. Vaillancourt is a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair who studies school-based mental health and violence prevention. She is trained as a clinical psychologist but focuses mainly on research examining the longitudinal relationships between violence, mental health and academic achievements. 

In an interview with the Fulcrum, Vaillancourt elaborated on her research, titled “The longitudinal associations between perfectionism and academic achievement across adolescence.” 

“We first recruited the participants when they were in grade five, and we’ve been following over 700 students since they were ten. For this study, we married our data that we had collected on them as individuals with the data we have from their official school records.”

By doing so, the researchers were able to examine the relationship between perfectionism and academic achievement. This longitudinal study is unlike any other study, allowing for a better understanding of this concept with more extensive data. The previous literature on this matter is more correlative: there are very few longitudinal studies on such young children on this topic.

Vaillancourt stated that her curiosity came from wanting to understand the ordering of the high achieving mentality.

“Is it the case that they get caught up in this rat race where they think that they’ve achieved and they have to constantly achieve? Does that achievement lead to perfectionism? Or is it that they have perfectionistic standards to begin with, and that leads them to be high achievers?” 

The biggest challenge this study faces is attrition. This is partly due to the length and extensiveness of the research. As a result, participants tend to drop out every year. This risks the data collection not being justifiable from a scientific, financial, and ethical standpoint. The team has worked very hard to engage a large percentage of their original population for 14 years.

Dr. Vaillancourt explained the results of the study and what they mean. 

“I think most people would assume that if you’re perfectionist you have high perfectionistic standards, and that leads you to achieving. However, what we showed was that the pathway was from achievement to perfectionism, and not from perfectionism to achievement. Meaning, that your achievements lead to wanting to maintain that achievement through perfectionistic standards.” 

She continued, “that’s really important because perfectionism is a maladaptive personality trait, it’s associated with anxiety and depression, and other things like academic burnout. So we’re really interested in how this unfolds over time.”

When asked if she could comment on the long term effects on these personality traits Vaillancourt responded, “what I suspect happens, and we need more longitudinal studies to show that this is the case. I think that they would burn out, because It’s really hard to maintain that really high standard for such a long time. Maybe then once they leave University, they have a little bit of a reprieve on the anxiety of achieving, but I think that if it’s a true trait, then they’ll pull it out in a different area. That’s why I would suspect that over time they’ll burn out, but they may also have increased issues with anxiety and depression.”

“I think we make assumptions, right? We assume that if we celebrate success, if you’re succeeding, then you’re gonna be happy, without realizing that you’re trapped in this trajectory, where you always have to achieve and the pressure becomes unbearable,” said Vaillancourt touching on the celebration of high achievements and the dark side of this culture.

Vaillancourt believes that if we reframe the conversation around success, and what success means. Then we would be able to change the relationship between high achievement and perfectionism and in turn help reduce anxiety and depression.

In the future, Vaillancourt is hoping to see more developments on this topic and continue to challenge the perception of education, achievement and success in our society. For more information regarding Professor Vaillancourt visit her research profile here