Parental Meritocracy Belief in Higher Education on Chinese Undergraduates’ Socially Prescribed Perfectionism Development
Parental Meritocracy Belief in Higher Education on Chinese Undergraduates’ Socially Prescribed Perfectionism Development
Table of Contents
High academic achievement is valued in all societies globally. High achievers are revered and respected individuals in any society. Consequently, students are expected to strive for high grades and perform spectacularly as professionals thereafter by their educators, parents, and society upon completing their studies successfully (Curran & Hill, 2019). However, the expectations of high academic performance and sterling professional performance are individual and societal tendencies towards perfectionism, a concept that is increasingly receiving research attention nowadays (Saltürk, 2021). It is widely acknowledged that perfectionism is a psychological trait or tendency in which one strives for or is expected to be flawless in all one’s undertakings. Although flawlessness is a high-order psychological goal, the real attainment of perfectness is untenable, considering that humankind is fallible by their fundamental human nature. Therefore, while many people may strive for perfection in many spheres of life, attaining it is another issue altogether. Nonetheless, people strive for perfection relentlessly even when they realize that they may not attain it in their lifetimes. They expect that near-perfect performance will be held in high regard by peers, institutions, and society. More so, in meritorious societies, near perfect individuals are accorded more life opportunities than low achievers (Liu, 2013). These opportunities may be political or economic. Besides, perfectionism is instilled in children early in life by their parents, which influences their developmental trajectory (Flett et al., 2002). Therefore, parents are critical for instilling perfectionism within the family setting and propagating the same in society across different generations.
Academic achievement is fraught with perfectionism. Many individuals set high educational achievement standards and work hard towards attaining perfect scores in examinations. Similarly, many societies set high academic achievement standards for their members to foster their competitive edge and help them outcompete their peers so that they standout. likewise, many parents are increasingly setting high academic standards for their children to give them a good start in life, with the hope that high educational performance would lead to a successful life later (Curran & Hill, 2019). This means that people other than self can exert considerable pressure to become perfect, in a concept that is now understood as socially prescribed perfectionism.
Socially prescribed perfectionism has been increasing, as has been demonstrated by emerging literature. Socially prescribed perfectionism is one of the three perfectionism dimensions, the others being self-oriented and other-oriented perfectionism (Sorkkila & Aunola, 2020). This phenomenon has attracted much attention from scholars and the public with existing evidence documenting its temporal rise, and indicated by the statistical analyses conducted between 1989 and 2017 (Curran & Hill ,2019 ). According to Curran and Hill (2019), while all levels of trait perfectionism dimensions have increased linearly by 32% in this period, Curran and Hill (2022) thereafter clarified that that the levels of socially prescribed perfectionism had more than doubled compared to the other trait perfectionism dimensions. Since socially prescribed perfectionism refers to the perfectionist expectations imposed on an individual by others in society, this trend indicates that people are being increasingly pressured to be perfect. More so, youngsters in the current generation are under increased pressure to strive for and attain perfection by others, including their parents, peers, and society members. According to Damian et al. (2013), parents played a significant role in the longitudinal prediction and rise of socially prescribed perfectionism in adolescents, indicating that adolescents’ perfectionism was significantly influenced by the high standards and expectations of others. Unfortunately, many of these high expectations and standards are unrealistic, causing distress in adolescents and young adults (Curran & Hill, 2022). This is worrisome because socially prescribed perfectionism is described as the most harmful and destructive dimension of trait perfectionism (Flet et al., 2022). This means that parents could potentially be harming their children by placing high academic standards and expectations without knowing. Many parents do so believing that high grades open up numerous opportunities for a successful life and wish that their children realize such life successes from their high academic achievement (Bozick et al., 2010). Many parents believe that these opportunities should be distributed meritoriously and that their children can merit such opportunities and the rewards they present from their exemplary academic performance and achievement (Olivos, 2021). However, it is not clear how culture influences the parents’ promotion of socially prescribed perfectionism in their children. In this regard, socially prescribed perfectionism in the Chinese educational setting is this study’s primary focus.
Socially prescribed perfectionism is a complex concept that is increasingly being studied today. New knowledge is emerging to expand the extant understanding of the concept, particularly in its definitions, dimensions, effects on wellbeing, and advantages and limitations. Socially prescribed perfectionism has various definitions, which are culturally influenced. In other words, different cultures view socially prescribed perfectionism differently, and therefore, set different perfectness standards for its members and recognize perfectionism differently as well. It is already established that perfectionism is associated with extremely high standards that drive the efforts of individuals in diverse spheres of life, including education. In addition, there is growing evidence that perfectionism has psychological effects on individuals, some of which are positive while others are negative. However, socially prescribed perfectionism is associated with negative outcomes, including hopelessness, helplessness, excessive validation seeking, impulsive behavior, negative emotional states, and several other adverse psychological effects (Flett et al., 2022).
Socially prescribed perfectionism has attracted intensive research attention in the last three decades with focus being on its nature, impact, positive and negative outcomes. Studies have also gathered considerable evidence related to the influence of socially perceived perfectionism and meritocracy beliefs on student development. However, many studies have paid disproportionate attention to Caucasian populations and how they learn, develop, and adjust their developmental processes in their academic journey within setting where perfectionism is valued and encouraged. Little attention has been paid to non-Caucasian students and how their educational journey influenced by socially prescribed perfectionism and meritocracy beliefs. More specifically, evidence on how non-Caucasian cultures perceive perfectionism and meritocracy, and how these perceptions influence the academic development and achievement of their members, is scarce. Therefore, this study explores socially perceived perfectionism from a Chinese cultural lens and seeks to understand the relationship between the meritocracy beliefs held by Chinese parents regarding higher education, their expectations for their children undergoing tertiary education, and the higher education students perceive socially prescribed perfectionism. Therefore, the Chinese culture represents the non-Caucasian cultural setting for perfectionism and meritocracy beliefs of parents, which have been understudied in existing literature.
Therefore, this study hopes to unearth insights into the influence of the Chinese culture on socially prescribed perfectionism and parental meritocracy beliefs, and how those perceptions promote or undermine the Chinese higher education students’ performance and achievement. The Chinese society is selected as the study’s setting because it is a dominant society in the oriental world with unique cultural characteristics. In the same vein, higher education has exploded in China in the recent past with increasing populations seeking university credentials in a highly crowded and competitive higher educational setting. The findings derived from this study can augment the existing knowledge in the literature related to socially prescribed perfectionism across different cultures and how meritocracy beliefs held by parents influence the development of this perfectionism dimension in their children. Besides, the findings may help inform approaches to help Chinese parents encourage their children without exposing them to adverse psychological outcomes from setting unrealistically and untenably high academic standard and expectations.
This study aims at understanding how parental meritocracy belief is related with their expectations and standards on higher education for their children. This can be achieved by exploring the relationships between parental meritocracy belief in higher education, parental expectation in higher education, and college students’ socially prescribed perfectionism.
The objectives of this study are:
- To explain the meaning of socially prescribed perfectionism as a socially-constructed concept
- To explain socially prescribed perfectionism as multidimensional personality phenomenon
- To explore the relationship between meritocracy and socially prescribed perfectionism
- To investigate how cultural influences socially prescribed perfectionism
- To explain the Chinese perception of socially prescribed perfectionism
- To investigate how Chinese parents nurture academic socially prescribed perfectionism in their children
The primary question that this study attempts to answer is: Does parental meritocracy belief in higher education develop Chinese undergraduates’ socially prescribed perfectionism? How does this happen? Subsequently, the secondary questions considered in this study are:
- Does parents’ meritocracy belief in higher education generate their high standards on their children?
- When children perceive the failure to meet parents’ high standard, do they develop socially prescribed perfectionism?
- How widely do meritocracy beliefs in higher education exist in Chinese culture? Why?
- What are the factors for college students with national financial aids to perceive meritocracy belief in higher education?
- What is the contribution of educators, peers and parents on the perceptions of meritocracy and socially prescribed perfectionism?
- Why do Chinese parents set high expectations and standards for children to achieve in higher education?
- To what extent are parents’ high standards on children related to the parental belief in meritocracy in higher education?
There are several frameworks that were used to direct this study. For instance, Flett et al. (2002) developed a model explaining how perfectionism was developed in children and summarized it in the illustration in figure 1.
Figure 1. Factors contributing to the development of perfectionism
Source: Flett et al. (2002, p. 108)
Similarly, Saltürk (2021) came up with motives that promoted perfectionism in students performing academic tasks. The motives are categorized as those related to striving for perfectionism and those associated with the self-evaluative aspect of perfectionism. The motives are presented in figure 2.
Figure 2: Motivations promoting perfectionism in educational tasks
Source: Saltürk (2021, p. 7)
Liu (2016) developed a framework for explaining how Gaokao in China was used to influence the meritocratic selection of students in higher education. The framework is summarized in figure 3.
Figure 3. Framework of Gaokao’s influence on the meritocratic selection of students into higher education in China.
Source: Liu (2016)
Similarly, several theories are pertinent to this study because they underpin the different concepts and variables used in the study. Social identity theory and perfectionism social disconnection model are useful in this study (Flett et al. 2022). Cultural capital theory is also useful because it posits that people possess certain skills, knowledge and behavior characteristic of the groups to which they belong (Liu, 2016). In education circles, the culture of a class of people can influence social institutions and academic achievement. The cultural capital thus possessed by a class of people can deliver advantages in education settings, including academic achievement enhancement.
Ho1: Parents’ meritocracy belief in higher education generates their high standards on their children
Ho2: Children that perceive the failure to meet parents’ high standard develop socially prescribed perfectionism
Ho3: Meritocracy beliefs in higher education are perceived widely in Chinese culture?
Ho4: College students with national financial aids in China perceive meritocracy belief in higher education
Ho5: Educators, peers and parents contribute significantly to the perceptions of meritocracy and socially prescribed perfectionism among College students in China
Ho6: Chinese parents set high expectations and standards for children to achieve in higher education
Ho7: Parents’ high standards on children are significantly related to the parental belief in meritocracy in higher education
The understanding of the concept of perfectionism has evolved over time, with the traditional considerations of perfectionism as a unidimensional concept giving way to the more contemporary multidimensional approach. Traditionally, perfectionists were considered to be rigid and having extreme self-evaluation and expectations, and perpetually driven to attain the elusive perfection (Smith et al., 2022). Similarly, perfectionism was considered as the tendency to hold oneself to exceptionally high standards, often leading to negative psychological outcomes (Birch et al., 2019). Phan et al (2021) revealed that the concept first appeared as a pathological trait that blocked therapy. At the time, perfectionism was viewed as being either normal or neurotic (Birch et al., 2019). These findings were derived from clinical settings and therefore did not benefit from the findings in non-clinical populations. However, this generalization was discarded as new evidence from non-clinical populations emerged and the modern theory of multidimensional perfectionism debuted in the 1990s. Initially, six dimensions of perfectionism were proposed, being condensed to three dimensions later. The six dimensions first suggested included high personal standards, preference for excessing order and organization, perceptions of extreme parental criticism, perceptions of high parental expectations, doubtfulness about the quality of individual’s actions, and excessive concern about erring (Birch et al., 2019). The three emerging condensed dimensions of perfectionism are socially prescribed perfectionism, self-oriented perfectionism, and other-oriented perfectionism (Birch et al., 2019). Similarly, perfectionism can be explained using the two factor theory, which categorizes the concept into two; perfectionistic concerns and perfectionistic strivings (Birch et al., 2019; Stricker et al., 2019). Notably, perfectionistic concerns and perfectionist strivings are associated with negative and positive outcomes of perfectionism, respectively.
Socially constructed perfectionism is about the perfectionist expectations imposed on an individual by others in society. In other words, people may have high expectations of others and believe that perfectionism is attained when their high expectations are met. Sorkkila, M., & Aunola, K. (2020) reveled that Finish mothers were more likely to burn out because of the inability to attain the high expectation the individual mothers and the finish society placed on motherhood, which can be termed as socially constructed perfectionism and self-oriented perfectionism demands, respectively. In this regard, Sorkkila and Aunola (2020) revealed that although self-oriented and socially prescribed perfectionism were related to higher psychological distress, socially prescribed perfectionism was related to low self-esteem among Hungarian adults. These findings reinforce the notion that perfectionism has healthy and unhealthy dimensions.
Perfectionism has also been associates with negative psychological outcomes. For instance, O’Connor and O’Connor (2003) investigated the association between perfectionism and coping to predict changes in the psychological wellbeing of college students. Their findings revealed that socially prescribed perfectionism predicted the psychological wellbeing changes of college students after about one month, with avoidance coping moderating this relationship after the initial levels of distress had been experienced. More specifically, while other-oriented perfectionism promote positive adaptation through cognitive reconstruction coping, self-oriented perfectionism undermined adaptation, and was therefore maladaptive for the college students.
Kim and Choi (2017) studied the contemporary understanding of meritocracy using a meta-analysis of existing literature and came up with the definition of the concepts, their features, and considerations. They noted that the original understanding of meritocracy as the product of intelligence and effort, justifying social stratification had given way to a more contemporary conceptualization in which meritocracy was a means of equalizing society through equal opportunities (Kim & Choi, 2017). Consequently, the common conceptualization of meritocracy is premised on the equality of opportunity and promotion of individual competence to eliminate impartiality. Kim and Choi (2017) continue to explain that main features of meritocracy include equality of opportunity, fairness, impartial competition, constructive competition, and fruits of diligence. They also categorize meritocratic societies using meritocratic and non-meritocratic elements. The meritocratic elements include good education ambition, and diligence, while the non-meritocratic elements comprise cronyism, family background and family wealth. Kim and Choi (2017) also summarized the benefits of meritocracy as including facilitative to social mobility, encouraging diligent effort to attain societal goals, and promoting transparent organsational management, thus reducing corruption. In the same vein, Cargile et al. (2019) revealed that meritocracy was a multidimensional concept with ideological beliefs that are linked to race. The descriptive and descriptive forms of racial meritocracy dialogues were associated with engagement and avoidance, respectively. Similarly, Olivos (2021) asserted the meritocracy guides the allocation of rewards, promoting inequality in society.
Literature has evidenced that meritocracy is culturally constructed, with some societies valuing it more than others. For instance, Littler (2017) argued that the cultures of some societies, particularly in the Global North, have perpetuated the narrative that if individuals works hard, they are likely to make it and enjoy upward mobility in life. Littler (2017) continues to argue that meritocracy takes to forms, the first being that it is a social system in which individuals are held responsible for being industrious for activating and actualizing their talents, while the second is meritocracy is a belief system constituting a worldview and is used to perpetuate certain power dynamics. In this regard, she argues that meritocracy beliefs are used by western societies to justify the progressive social mobility of the few that have worked hard to get ahead of others in society and rise to the top of the social strata, which is compatible with capitalism. Likewise, Mijs (2019) argued that meritocracy is used to legitimize the inequalities by the members of highly-unequal cultures, who take that such inequalities are justly deserved and those that are unable to attain high standards are unfortunate and have personally failed.
Meritocracy has been evident to be prevalent in educational systems. Erivwo et al. (2021) revealed that meritocracy was prevalent in education systems in Canada, Nigeria, and the United States, although it did not account for socioeconomic factors that impacted student achievement levels across different generations.
Chinese meritocracy perceptions are rooted in its traditions and politics. For instance, Liu (2016) discusses extensively meritocracy in China and explains that it is rooted in the Confucianism and Daoism philosophies. The Chinese exploited their meritocracy traditions in public management by establishing the civil service examination system (Keju) to meritoriously select civil servants back in the 7th century. During these days, meritocracy as a model of social selection was aimed at perpetuating the feudal bureaucracy and supporting the imperial regime, thus ensuring social stability across different dynasties (Liu, 2016). Therefore, the Chinese version of meritocracy is often termed as Confucian meritocracy.
Similarly, Liu (2013) explained that the Chinese Communist Party leveraged meritocracy to promote the economic transition from being centrally planned to being market driven. In this process, higher education selection (Gaokao) was the strategy used to promote meritocracy in the Chinese society, with Chinese students competing for spaces in elite universities. This was seen as the revival of the traditional education-based meritocracy ideology that the Chinese society had held in the ancient days (Liu, 2013).
Kim and Choi (2017) explained that China was the first country to deploy meritocracy in public sector management back in the late 1970s, in a form that differed from that used in western countries where the public education system and capitalism played a significant role in its promotion. However, Liu (2016) noted that meritocracy in China was used to perpetuate political power and was fraught with cronyism, familiar lineage, and social networks, thus privileging the elite and sidelining those without any social standing. This is unlike meritocracy from a western perspective, which focuses on allocating resources and dividing labor by merit to promote the industrial society (Liu, 2016). Yung et al. (2021) explained that the beliefs of meritocracy among parents in Hong Kong had gradually transformed in parentocracy in which parents supported rather than dominated the education in their children without setting high expectation son their return in educational investments because they believed that their children would succeed only due to their efforts and abilities.
2.4 Influence of meritocracy and spcially prescribed perfectionism on students’ academic performance and achievement
Bozick et al. (2010) explained that the high expectations of academic excellence and occupational status start early in life and are ingrained into students through family-based and school-based socialization processes.
A study by Wiederkehr et al. (2015) revealed that the belief in school meritocracy was associated with the beliefs that justify systems, which was more evident among low social economic status students and girls than in high social economic status students and boys. This study revealed that social economic status and gender mediated and influenced school meritocracy beliefs among students. Smith and Skrbiš (2017) confirmed and reinforced these findings by indicating that Australian students believed that hard work delivered academic success. In addition, while the Australian students acknowledge the importance of family support in their educational exploits, such support yielded negative academic performance outcomes, particularly among students from lowly educated and occupational backgrounds. Similarly, Saltürk (2021) revealed that students strived for perfectionism in academics because they were motivated to continuously strive and evaluate themselves based on their expectations and those of others. The motives that inspired students to strive for perfectionism in their academics include idealism, the will to outdo others, success, and happiness, while the factors that promoted self-evaluation of their perfectionism included the expectations of others and the desire for appreciation.
This study is designed as a quantitative secondary research. It is a quantitative study that seeks to explain the relationship between various concepts in a lived experience of a segment of the global population. In this regard, the phenomenon associated with the lived experience is perfectionism and the population segment experiencing this phenomenon in their lives comprises Chinese parents and higher education students. The phenomenon of perfectionism is best explained quantitatively rather than qualitatively to understand its causes, motivations, relationships, and effects. Quantitative studies are preferred for delivering a quantitative understanding of a phenomenon from the eyes of those that have lived the experience. In this regard, Chinese parents and higher education students are best positioned to explain their perceptions about perfectionism because they have lived and experienced it firsthand.
This study uses questionnaires to obtain data and information that would help answer the research question, which is: what is the relationship among parental meritocracy belief in higher education, parental expectation in higher education, and college students’ socially prescribed perfectionism? The questionnaires contain items comprising open-ended and closed-ended statements that participants will agree or disagree with to reveal their perceptions on the different concepts associates with the phenomenon of perfectionism, and particularly socially prescribed perfectionism. The responses generated by the participants will form the primary data that will be used to test the set hypotheses. Quantitative studies generate primary data that enhances the authenticity and validity of a study and its findings. Similarly, quantitative studies minimize bias, thus delivering more objective findings that have utility value. However, this study is limited by the complexity of the concepts and variables, making their quantification and that of their effects and outcomes challenging. Tis challenge has been addressed by using the commonly accepted definitions and explanation of concepts and variables.
The study participants were drawn from tertiary education institution located in China. These included students undertaking various degree courses in colleges and universities in China. In addition, parents with children in higher education institutions in china were also included as participants. Higher education institutions in China were selected as the study setting because it is the site where academic performance is displayed and where students demonstrate most vividly their strife towards perfectionism in educational outcomes. In higher education institutions, students are developing their professional skills and preparing for life in their selected careers before they enter the labor market.
Purposive sampling was used to recruit suitable students and their parents. Specifically, a few students were selected from the acquaintances of the researcher. These students were requested to enlist their peers at their respective colleges and universities. In the same vein, the students were asked to request their parents to enroll into the study. Consequently, purposive sampling was preferred because only willing students and their parents enlisted their participation after provide g their informed consent. This helped guard against participants existing from the study and guaranteed their participation throughout the study. In turn, purposive sampling also reduced the occurrence of incomplete questionnaires, thus raising the completion rate. Ultimately, 30 students and 30 parents enrolled without any inducement.
The data comprised the participants’ responses to questionnaire items. The research adopted available scales to measure the different aspects and perceptions about the dependent and independent variables. The measures were formulated as statements representing the different dimensions of the scales and rated using a 5-point Likert Scale, except those retrieving demographic information. The items measuring the different variables were adopted from established scales, such as the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale and the Big Three Perfectionism scale. In this regard, the participants were required to select the responses that best suited their opinion from the list, which were coded to convert then to statistically analyzable numerical codes (1=totally disagree; 2=somewhat disagree; 3=neither agree nor disagree; 4=somewhat agree; 5=totally agree). Two questionnaire sets were designed, one for students in higher education institutions and another for their parents.
The questionnaire was administered online. Online questionnaire administration was preferred due to promoting the participation of the respondents because they could be accessed, filled, and returned at the participants’ convenience. Specifically, online questionnaires can be filled from any location and using any gadget with internet connectivity, including computers, tablet, and mobile phones, enabling the respondents’ participation regardless of their temporal and spatial distances from the researcher.
Statistical analysis was used to quantify the variables, their relationships and the effects of those relationships. The variables in this study comprise of both dependent and independent ones. The dependent variable (DV) is socially prescribed perfectionism development, while the independent variables (IV) are parental meritocracy beliefs, Chinese culture, college students with national financial aids, and failure to meet parents’ high expectations and standards. The characteristics of and relationships between these variables will be tested using univariate and multivariate statistical analysis. Specifically, central tendency measures like means, standard deviation, and variance, and t-test were calculated alongside comparative statistics like correlation coefficients and analysis of variance (ANOVA) between the variables. A statistical software (SPSS) was used to perform the statistical analysis.
The researcher strived to maintain the highest research ethical standards to deliver a credible study. Informed consent was a primary ethical consideration because it involved human participants whose willingness to participate in this study was critical for its success. In this regard, colleges and universities were approached through their institutional review boards (IRBs) to provide permission to involve their students and parents in the study. After that, students and parents were invited to participate after being informed of the purpose of the study, the protection of their privacy, and the use of the study findings. The participants were assured of their voluntary participation and therefore, were allowed to exit the study at any point they felt uncomfortable or lost interest in the study. Similarly, the participants were assured that their personal identifiable information would be treated and kept confidentially. Also, they were assured that the information they divulge would be used for educational purposes only and that it would be stored securely to prevent unauthorized access. In the same vein, ethical issues related analyzing and discussing the study findings were also considered. The researcher committed to analyze and discuss the findings of this study objectively by eliminating personal biases. This was to increase the utility value of the study findings in different settings within and outside China.
The results are presented textually, graphically and in tables. The results revealed that Chinese students in higher education institutions understood the high competitiveness in college and university and the workplace and labor market. They indicated that they worked very hard in their tertiary academics to stay ahead of their competitors and have a better chance at landing a good job and move up the economic ladder in society. However, many students revealed that their industriousness often psychologically overwhelming, presenting negative psychological outcomes.
Similarly, Chinese parents believed that hard work yielded good performance and successful live after that. They believed that the only way their children would be successful in life is if they worked hard and achieved high grades in their education, at all levels, including tertiary education. However, despite these beliefs, urban and rural parents differed in that the rural parents implored their children to work hard to liberate themselves from poverty while the urban parents did more by investing in extra lessons for their children to improve their academic performance and give them a competitive edge.
The findings from the statistical analyses are discussed against the existing literature to help discover emerging and confirm existing knowledge.
Conclusions are made based on how the study findings answer the research question. These conclusions are used to develop recommendations on reducing the negative effects of parental meritocracy beliefs on the psychological wellbeing of their children.
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