Do You Suffer from the Perfection Premium?

In this week’s Ask Dan column, Dan answers a reader’s question about a phenomenon known as the perfection premium.

Dear Dan,

Every time my sister hosts a dinner party, she insists that every last tidbit of food she serves be homemade. This high standard is wearing on her. To make her life easier, I proposed buying a few items, but she balked at the idea. Why is she so invested in making everything from scratch, despite the stress? —Roxanne

And here is Dan’s response:

Your sister might be experiencing a “perfection premium,” which is the tendency to overrate something because it is perfect—and in her case, 100% homemade.

The perfection premium was demonstrated in a study about socks. Researchers asked some people how much more they would pay for socks that were 100% Merino wool compared with socks that were 98% Merino wool. They asked others about their willingness to pay for socks that were 96% Merino wool compared with socks that were 94% Merino. In both cases, the question was about the value they placed on an additional 2% wool—but in the first case, that 2% made the socks a perfect 100% wool, while in the second case, it was just an increase of 2% more Merino wool. The participants were willing to pay much more for the 2% increase when it brought the total to a perfect 100% compared with when it was just a 2% increase.

These findings show that people place a premium on perfection, perhaps because we put things that are perfect in a different mental category than those that are near-perfect. For your sister, making 95% of a meal from scratch rather than 100% may have the benefit of saving time, but it would cost her the loss of the perfection premium. With this in mind, instead of interfering with her pride in a perfectly home-cooked meal, you could try to work with it—for example, by suggesting that she purchase desserts from a baker at a local farmers market. These items aren’t technically ‘homemade,” but you might be able to help her think about them as such.

In the same research study that involved the socks, research participants were asked to evaluate the results from a standardized test (the ACT, in which a perfect score is 36). In this scenario, the difference in perceived ability between a student who earns a perfect score of 36 and a near-perfect score of 35 is much greater than the difference between students whose scores are 35 versus 34. In both cases, the difference is only one point, but a premium is given to the student who scored the perfect score of 36.

I just think there is a mystique associated with perfection.

There are a couple of sports analogies that might be relevant:

  • I would guess that most people would evaluate the difference between pitching a perfect game in baseball vs allowing just one hit as being much greater than the difference between allowing one hit versus two hits. Baseball keeps track of perfect games; there is something magical about them.
  • In bowling, a perfect score is 300. Comparing a 300 to 299 may result in a large perceived difference since one of the games was perfect. But the difference between a 299 and a 298 might not seem to be significant. Again, a 300 is a special event. A 299 is not quite there.

This may also apply to my blogging, and to my advantage.

Since I never aim for perfection with my blog posts, e.g. having no grammatical errors or typos (mainly because I know it will never happen), I assume readers don’t perceive much, if any, difference between having just one or two errors versus having a half-dozen or more errors. This makes life much easier for me, I don’t have to exert the extra effort to try and be close to perfect because no one would notice anyway.

And it seems like my approach is supported by some big names, as indicated by this quote I found on reddit:

  • Voltaire: “The best is the enemy of the good.”
  • Confucius: “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.”
  • Shakespeare: “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well.”

Who am I to argue with these guys?

P.S. And yes, apparently I just compared my blog to a diamond…


70 thoughts on “Do You Suffer from the Perfection Premium?

  1. Interesting study. I would point out though, that someone who achieves a perfect score on a test or in a game may be held in such high esteem because one cannot know the limits of their ability. Whereas someone who scores near-perfect has their ability delimited by the test, and there’s no room for imagining how much better they might be.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. great point. but it could also be that if you asked 10 more questions to the people who scored a 35 or 36, the person with the 35 might now have a better score…

      I guess the moral of the story is to quit while you are ahead. Once you achieve perfection, you should live off those laurels the rest of your life…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m not sure about that moral. If I pitched a perfect baseball game, I’d try to get a gigantic, multi-million dollar contract. Then I’d keep playing, without giving a damn how well I continued to pitch.

        Liked by 3 people

      2. I am guessing if you were the type of player who could pitch a no-hitter, you would not be quick to not give a damn. Nolan Ryan pitched 7 of them and Sandy Koufax threw 4, including one perfect game.

        Liked by 3 people

  2. My feet would be very happy if I could find 100% merino wool socks. I would happily save money on a lesser percentage but those damn feet have a mind, and a humidity gauge, of their own.
    Are you suggesting that you blog isn’t diamond quality?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. First off, I recognize Yankees pitcher David Wells. He was known for being a legendary eater as well as an excellent pitcher. He fits in multiple areas of your post.

    My wife is a far better cook than me. I think she may be the best cook I’ve personally known, but I feel bad for her because she feels like she has to compete with her sister and nephew, who fix extravagant gourmet meals. It’s not quite the same context, but I feel like my wife bowls a 300 most nights, and the other family comes in at 299.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. The more I thought about this, the more I see it in my own life. I definitely suffer from the “Perfection Premium”. I am not sure why Merino Wool is so coveted, but I am already disappointed that all my socks aren’t 100% Merino Wool. Thank goodness perfection is not required for blogging or I don’t know what all of us we be doing with our extra time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think I gave up a while ago on perfection for my pursuits.

      Although I have to admit that I am impressed when a student graduates with a 4.0 To get an A in very single course you took – that is quite an achievement…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. i’m not one who suffers from this ailment but it is clearly out there, and perfection is definitely perceived differently from ‘close to perfection’ which means nothing to most. luckily i consider myself a ‘diamond in the rough.”

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Of course the pressure to strive for perfectionism should be compared to a diamond. After all, as the saying goes, “A diamond is a chunk of coal that did well under pressure.” In the iconic words of Alanis Morissette, “isn’t it ironic, don’t you think?”

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ve been accused of being a perfectionist but I don’t think I’m that much of a Virgoan! I follow something I was taught on my MBA course: the art of ‘satisficing.’ That is, striking a balance between satisfying and sufficing. It works for me, and is the excuse I’ll use if anyone ever complains that one of my posts is riddled with typos or is grammatically illiterate. Now there’s an invitation – just throw diamonds, not pebbles, please 😊

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Thank you! I do try to keep them out – I feel it is a mark of respect to my readers to take care of the drivel I throw at them.

        Am I that predictable! I didn’t post last Saturday, either – my monthly review came out on Friday – but there will be a new one up tomorrow 😊

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I would not host a dinner party where every item wasn’t made form scratch, Jim. My mom, Terence and I all take turns cooking and we all cook from scratch because we think its healthier. I suppose that is unusual, but you can’t put a price or time value on health.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I think this post is perfect. I didn’t notice any errors, but I don’t rate it better than posts with a few typos or errors. They’re all great! I’ll nitpick one point regarding perfect games versus one hit though. Having no hits is a no hitter not necessarily perfection, i.e. a perfect game where no one reaches base by any means. There is a huge perfection premium on pitching a perfect game versus a no hitter. Other than things like a single baseball game, I’m not sure there is such a thing as perfection in life. Even a meal wholly prepared from scratch can suck. Like you said, quit while you are ahead because the streak won’t last. The perfection premium is a very interesting concept.
    Great post!


    1. thanks, John.

      and while the pitcher usually gets all the credit for a perfect game, there may have been some great defensive plays that saved the game. a pitcher who throws a one-hit game may actually have been more dominant than a perfect game pitcher, except for perhaps one bad pitch. a perfect game requires so many things to go right, including luck.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Very true! A perfect game is most definitely more of a team success and no hitters much more of a pitcher success. I think there have only been something like 20 perfect games since 1900 and many many more no hitters. Even if a pitcher only faces 27 hitters, it might not be a perfect game or even a no hitter.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I think no hitters often require some great fielding play as well, although it could be an error that makes the difference between no-hitter and a perfect game. But could also be a walk to hit batter – which can be blamed on the pitcher. It’s amazing how few perfect games there have been…

        Liked by 1 person

  10. I’ve struggled with perfectionism my whole life – in particular, with my writing as well! So I totally relate to this idea of perfection premium. It’s taken a whole year of committing to write weekly for me to get over that perfectionism!

    I wonder if Roxanne’s sister suffers from perfection premium because of those who surround her- perhaps it’s perpetuated without her circle? She feels a need to live up to the same standards as others who make it seem “easy” but of course, no one ever shows/says how hard things are (“oh it was nothing, just threw some dishes together, nothing at all”)! One of my favourite chefs (Ina Garten) always talks about (when throwing a dinner party), “buy one or two things out of convenience and make the rest, it doesn’t have to be perfect.” Okay that wasn’t verbatim but she generally says that! Also, one of my favourite YouTubers (Kathryn Snearly of “Do It On A Dime”) always says, “A done something is better than a perfect nothing.”

    Liked by 1 person

  11. How interesting! I gave up on perfection a long time ago and I am happier for it. I heard an interview with an athlete a couple of days ago and she was describing how devastating a loss at the olympics was for her. She came home with a silver medal. I was sad for who she was at that time in her life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. it is sad to see the pressure people place on themselves, but the world does not make it easy for such athletes. the difference between silver and a gold could mean millions of dollars difference in endorsements…

      Liked by 1 person

  12. I gathered the belief many years ago that perfectionism is the killer of joy, Jim. We’re all doing our best and I feel your blog is a diamond. Hugs to you all. Xx

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Amazing Jim! Discovering your blog is like finding a diamond . . . rather my golf ball . . . in the rough. I hope my writing approaches the edges of perfection because my golf game never will.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Much to think about in this post and the following comments, especially since I am trying to get over/past my perfectionism. See, when I can’t find the one right/perfect word I give myself and my readers options! Of course, when reading back my comments after some time has passed, I still cringe when I catch type-o’s or worse yet don’t recall what I was thinking at the time I wrote it!

    Also taking the opportunity here to comment on your previous post. I think people (like us?) who are intelligent express themselves with humor especially as they/we grow older. Not so sure that the humor exhibited by young class clowns is related to intelligence since their humor is often based on bullying or similar simple thoughts and behaviors. As for you, my friend, I think you have to be pretty intelligent to be a Villanova prof. Am I wrong?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I do the usual spell-check and read through it once before I publish my blog posts, but I don’t worry too much about grammar, since I consider this a very informal type of writing.

      Good point about the class clowns sometimes picking on others as a source of his or her humor, and I must I did that at times. It’s one of the things I wish I could do-over.

      And as far as being a college prof, you might question the intelligence of someone whose students are making more money than he is within just a couple years past the students’ graduations… 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

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