Discrepancies confer vulnerability to depressive symptoms: A three-wave longitudinal study

Discrepancies (i.e., a subjective sense of falling short of one’s own standards) are a key part of the perfectionism construct. Theory suggests discrepancies confer vulnerability to depressive symptoms. Since most research in this area is cross-sectional, longitudinal research is needed to disentangle directionality of relationships and to permit stronger causal inferences. Determining whether discrepancies are an antecedent of depressive symptoms, a consequence of depressive symptoms, or both is critical to understanding the discrepancies–depressive symptoms relationship. Knowledge about the temporal stability of discrepancies is also only starting to emerge, and it is unclear whether discrepancies predict incremental variance in depressive symptoms above and beyond neuroticism (i.e., a dispositional tendency to experience negative emotional states). The present study tested relationships among discrepancies, neuroticism, and depressive symptoms in 127 1st-year undergraduates using a 3-wave longitudinal design. Results suggest discrepancies may be understood as a trait-state where people are both highly consistent in their rank order on discrepancies and fluctuate somewhat in the level of discrepancies they experience at a particular point in time. As hypothesized, discrepancies predicted increases in depressive symptoms, even after controlling for neuroticism. Contrary to hypotheses, depressive symptoms did not predict changes in discrepancies. This study extends a long tradition of theory noting the depressing consequences of believing that one has fallen short of one’s own standards. Harsh self-criticism and unobtainable self-expectations involving a strong sense of imperfection may be part of the premorbid personality of people vulnerable to depressive symptoms.