URJHS Volume 7


The Relationship of Fear of Negative Evaluation and Perfectionism in College Students

Wayne Stephan, Amber Stephan, & Rosealee Palmer
Huntington University


The purpose of this study was to investigate the relationship between the fear of negative evaluation and perfectionism. The population for the study consisted of 786 undergraduate college students who were conveniently selected into a sample size of 34 students. Most of the students were Caucasian, and the mean age for the sample size was 20. The fear of negative evaluation was measured by the FNE scale, and perfectionism was measured by the FMPS. The study found that scores for students on the FMPS had a strong positive linear correlation with the scores for the same students on the FNE. The Pearson r correlation for the two variables was .618, with a critical level of .349. This study was supported by previous research, although a larger and more representative sample size might be beneficial to future studies.


What exactly is fear of negative evaluation, and how is it generally viewed? Carleton, McCreary, Norton, and Asmundson (2006) defined the fear of negative evaluation as “the apprehension and distress arising from concerns about being judged despairingly or hostilely by others” (p. 297). The same study also stated that the fear of negative evaluation is one of three major types of fears that may give rise to other anxieties, fears, and pathologies. Tozzi, Aggen, Neale, Anderson, Mazzeo, Neale et al. (2004) made a connection between fear of negative evaluation and perfectionism, suggesting that concern over making mistakes is one of the core features of perfectionism. Concern over mistakes can be viewed as a form of fear of negative evaluation in that you worry that you have to be perfect in order to be accepted. In short, mistakes are synonymous with failure and disapproval.

Cowden (2005) found that there were strong relationships between the fear of negative evaluation, shyness, and worry, all of which played a part in determining whether one would become a perfectionist. However, another study found that although fear of rejection seems to be central to shyness, shyness in and of itself was found to be uncorrelated to perfectionism (Jackson, Towsen, & Narduzzi, 1997). Flett, Hewitt and DeRossa (1996), who took the different types of perfectionism into consideration, found that socially-prescribed perfectionism was correlated with several psychosocial adjustment problems including loneliness, shyness, and fear of negative evaluation.

Perfectionism was found to be associated with the fear of negative evaluation in a number of studies. Blatt, Quinlin, Pilkonis, and Shea (1995) found that perfectionism led to feelings of depression that seemed to be initiated by feeling inadequate and having a fear that one was never meeting certain social standards that one had set for his/herself. A similar study also found that perfectionism was associated with shame and that it could be understood that this is because perfectionists fear that they are letting others down if they are not perfect in their actions (Ashby, Rice, & Martin, 2006). As different studies suggested, the fear of negative evaluation may not be mentioned directly but many studies seemed to assume that different personality traits such as shame, worry, and shyness could be closely related to fear of negative evaluation. The fear of negative evaluation seemed to be the backbone of some of these other personality traits and thus also played a part in the perfectionism that was exhibited.

There are also many ways to define perfectionism, or many “types” of perfectionism one can attribute to an individual. Arthur (1997) stated that perfectionism was multi-dimensional. It could be self-oriented, other-oriented, or socially-prescribed. He also found that in post-secondary students, perfectionism was related to adjustment difficulties and to negative interactions with others and feelings about others. Rosser, Isakiddis, and Peters (2003), as well as Frost, Turcotte, Heimberg, Mattia, Holt, and Hope (1995), found that perfectionism, as related to the concern of making mistakes, seemed to be highly correlated with having a fear of negative evaluation. Frost et al. (1995) also found that this type of perfectionism was concerned with interpreting mistakes as failure. Unlike other studies, however, they analyzed how perfectionists perceived mistakes. It was found that people with a higher concern for mistakes did not necessarily make more mistakes than others who scored lower on this concern; they just interpreted the mistakes much more negatively than those who did not have a high concern for mistakes. Again, this showed a relationship between a concern for mistakes and the fear that making a mistake would result in a negative response from others. In another study it was determined that a concern for mistakes and fear of negative evaluation seemed to overlap one another in a way that may lead to the assumption that there is a strong similarity between the fear of negative evaluation and a perfectionists’ concern for making mistakes (Rosser et al, 2003). This study also found that concern for mistakes was central to the perfectionism construct as a whole.

A number of studies addressed many different “types” of perfectionism. Flett, Hewitt, Garshowitz, and Martin (1997) found that having a number of negative social reactions was positively correlated with what is referred to as socially-prescribed perfectionism as well as with self-oriented perfectionism. Flett, Blankstein, Hewitt, and Koledin (1992) also found that socially-prescribed perfectionism was strongly correlated with an increased fear of failure and rejection in both men and women, which indicated that gender should not be a greatly biasing factor. Additionally, Onwuegbuzie (2000) found that fear of failure was highly correlated not only with socially prescribed perfectionism but also with self-oriented perfectionism. Conroy, Kay, and Fifer (2007) examined fear of failure with the different types of perfectionism and found that socially-prescribed perfectionism was highly correlated with the feelings of failure that related to negative evaluation from others. The other two types of perfectionism were not highly correlated with a fear of negative evaluation individually. However, when both self-oriented perfectionism and other-oriented perfectionism were examined together they were more highly correlated with feelings of shame and negative evaluation than just socially-prescribed perfectionism alone. As a result it seems logical to assume that, though perfectionism is multidimensional, it seems to have a strong relationship to the fear of negative evaluation no matter how it is defined.

Studies also addressed perfectionism as either adaptive or maladaptive, and therefore it is reasonable that these two classifications of perfectionism are considered along with fear of negative evaluation. Stoeber and Otto (2006) found that self-oriented perfectionism could actually be healthy to an individual as long as the person is not overly concerned and consumed with fear of negative evaluation and mistakes. The research seemed to indicate that the fear of negative evaluation can affect whether a person has a healthy expression of perfectionism. In relation to the finding from Stoeber and Otto (2006), Stoltz and Ashby (2007) found that maladaptive perfectionists were more likely to seek positive feedback from their environment and to fear rejection.

These studies indicated that fear of negative evaluation was correlated more strongly to unhealthy forms of perfectionism and would likely correlate more with those who scored high on the concern for mistakes subscale. Choy and McInerney (2001) found that perfectionists based their self-worth upon their performance; therefore the fear of negative evaluation related to their performance was quite common. This coincided with a maladaptive view of perfectionism—that perfectionists were overly concerned with their performance and its evaluation. Additionally Flett, Hewitt, and Greene (2004) found that socially-prescribed perfectionism was highly correlated with anxiety related to negative social evaluation and that perfectionist cognitions overall were associated with a greater disposition to anxiety in general. Saboonchi and Lundh (1997) also found that elements of perfectionism, including concern about mistakes, doubt of action, and socially-prescribed perfectionism, were more highly correlated with social anxiety, which included fear of negative evaluation, than with public self-consciousness.

In light of the past research, the current study examined the relationship between fear of negative evaluation and perfectionism. The hypothesis for this study, following the findings of previous studies, was that a positive linear correlation would be found between the variables of perfectionism and the fear of negative evaluation.



The population for the study consisted of 786 college students from a small liberal arts university in the Midwest. The student population ranged in age from 17 to 25, and the majority of the students were Caucasian with a Protestant/Christian background. On average the population consisted of roughly 58 percent females and 42 percent males. No distinction was made among the students based on their class or their enrollment status. The actual sample size consisted of 32 college students ranging in ages from 17 to 24. Ninety-four percent of participants were Caucasian; 44 percent were female, and 56 percent of students were male. The sample was a convenience sample, gathered by requesting their participation through campus email.


The two variables of perfectionism and fear of negative evaluation were measured and quantified by two specific indexes. The index used to measure perfectionism was the Frost Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale (FMPS) (Frost, Marten, Lahart, & Rosenblatt, 1990). The FMPS showed very good internal consistency for all subscales and the total score with alpha levels ranging from .77 to .93 (Frost et al., 1990). There have been some who question its validity arguing that the subcategories could be simplified and some of them combined. The subscales include a concern over mistakes (CM) that consists of nine items; personal standards (PS) that consists of four items; parental expectations (PE) that consists of five items; parental criticism (PC) that consists of four items; doubting of actions (DA) that consists of four items, and finally organization (O) that consists of six items. This gives the scale a total of 35 self-reported items that are measured on a five-point Likert scale. The total perfectionism score on the FMPS is measured by totaling all of the subscales except for organization that is assessed as a separate but related dimension of perfectionism. Some questions from the FMPS include: (a) My parents set very high standards for me, (b) I set higher goals than most people, (c) If I fail at work/school I am a failure as a person, (d) As a child I was punished for doing things less than perfectly, and (e) I usually have doubts about simple every day things I do.

The Fear of Negative Evaluation Scale (FNE) (Watson & Friend, 1969) measured the variable, fear of negative evaluation. The FNE consists of 30 items that refer to expectation and distress related to negative evaluation from others. Each item is answered with a response of either true or false, with a point given for certain items to which the participants answer true and certain items to which the participants answer false, with higher scores reflecting more anxiety over negative evaluation. This test has good reliability with its internal consistency measured by the Kuder-Richardson Formula 20 receiving scores ranging from .94 to .96 (Watson & Friend, 1969). Validity for the FNE was found to be good, with the FNE being significantly correlated with measures of anxiety, social evaluative anxiety, and social approval (Watson & Friend, 1969). The FNE has been recorded as one of the most sensitive social phobia treatment outcome measures following cognitive behavioral group therapy ( Anthony, Bieling, Cox, Enns, & Swinson, 1998 ). Some statements from the scale include: (a) I rarely worry about seeming foolish to others, (b) I react very little when others disapprove of me, (c) I am not necessarily upset if I do not please someone, and (d) I brood about the opinions my friends have about me.


We began by appropriating two days for administering the indexes as well as a time, which was the same on both days. Two days were chosen in order to provide a counterbalancing effect in which on one day the FMPS was administered first and on the next day the FNE was the first test administered. This schedule was selected as well to increase the response rate. After deciding the time and the days in which the indexes were going to be administered, we then proceeded to acquire permission to use a room. An appropriate incentive, free pizza, for the students was determined in order to increase the response rate. A uniform email was then constructed indicating the different dates and times for conducting the study and describing the incentive and the estimated length of time it would take. The email was sent to all 786 Huntington University students. The instructions for administering the indexes were constructed to ensure that the same instructions would be used both days.

As participants arrived for the study, the researcher kept track of the number of actual respondents. Each participant was asked to take a seat at least one seat away from other participants. Approximately five minutes after the scheduled time the doors to the room were closed and two of the researchers remained outside, ensuring that no one entered the room late or disrupted the study.

After the researcher read the instructions, the test and the writing utensils were distributed to each participant. The researcher remained in the room to monitor the procedure and well as to answer any questions that anyone might have. When the indexes were turned in, the researcher ensured that each of the two indexes had a student ID number. Students were invited to take a slice or two of pizza as a reward for their time and effort. Any indexes which were incomplete or missing a matching survey were discarded from the study.


Two participants were omitted from the sample. One did not match the age range needed for this study, and the other participant failed to complete the entire survey. The statistics were computed on the remaining 32 participants. Using a Pearson r correlation the results were found to be statistically significant at an alpha level of .05. The computed Pearson r correlation for the study was r (30, .349) = .618, p < .001. Therefore, the null hypothesis was rejected. The results indicated a strong positive correlation between perfectionism and a fear of negative evaluation. The mean score on the FNE was computed at 15.13 (S.D.= 7.47) out of a possible 30, whereas the average on the FMPS was computed at 83.28 (S.D.= 16.3) out of 145.

Figure 1. The relationship between perfectionism (FMPS) and the fear of negative evaluation (FNE)


The results indicated that there was a significant correlation between perfectionism and the fear of negative evaluation. Therefore our hypothesis, which was supported by much of the past research (Conroy et al., 2007; Frost et al., 1995; Flett et al., 1997; and, Rosser et al., 2003), was affirmed by our own study’s results. Our study served to support a correlation between these two variables and should be considered in any further research conducted on either of these two variables.

The practical implication of these findings is that these two variables should be analyzed in light of one another, given the consistent correlation that has been found. Therefore, it may be reasonable to infer that when people are struggling with an issue concerning perfectionism (such as anorexia, bulimia, as well as various other issues) that their fears of negative evaluation be considered. These findings may also be important when considering the behavior of students with milder perfectionist traits, such as the role of perfectionism in academia; professors and counselors may need to be more sensitive to evaluation and comments that they give to students who appear to have a perfectionist demeanor.

Significant results were obtained despite the limitations of the study, which largely stemmed from the low response rate. The response rate was only about 5 percent of the population. The low response rate indicates that although our findings were significant, one should be careful when generalizing to the population. The low response rate was likely due to a shortcoming in the procedure of using a single form of communication (i.e., email) to notify students. For future studies it may be advisable to use more than one method of communication, such as campus mail and/or flyers, or have participation be a class requirement. Another alternative would be to distribute the surveys via campus mail and have them completed and returned within so many days.

Future studies might also investigate the differences among other variables that this study did not consider. For example, the participants’ gender or class rank might be factors that contribute to or alter the findings of the study. Additionally, future studies might also consider the variables of age and/or race to see if either of those have an impact on the levels of each variable or their correlation with one another.


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