Personality 101: Conscientiousness
Human personality is a well-known concept in both academic and non-academic circles. This concept has raised the most diverse conclusions in both circles: from well-established factorial solutions to classifications of people based on what the Sorting Hat from Hogwarts would estimate. For a long time now, research in psychology has gained plenty of knowledge about human personality and its implications in everyday life, but this knowledge is either unknown or misunderstood by the general population. This situation calls for efforts to close this gap between what is known based on science and what is assumed to be true based on our random and subjective experience. The following 101 series explores the most consensual contemporary conceptualization of personality, the creative steps scientists took to arrive at this conceptualization using the lexical hypothesis, the specificities of this contemporary conceptualization by looking at each one of the Big Five traits, and the implications of each trait for individuals and societies.
The Personality 101 series is divided into 5 chapters:
Personality 101: The Trait Approach and The Lexical Hypothesis
Personality 101: Conscientiousness
Personality 101: Agreeableness and Extraversion
Personality 101: Emotional Stability
Personality 101: Openness to Experience
Personality 101: Conscientiousness
There are thousands of resources, both online and offline, that have aimed to explain the characteristics of a successful life. From the writings of the Bible, through the teachings of Marcus Aurelius, to the hundreds of podcasts of today and the rise of people like Jocko Willink, Joe Rogan, or Jordan B. Peterson, humans across the globe are trying to figure out the essential toolkit with which to equip themselves to lead a life with a reasonable amount of success. The answers are, of course, as diverse as the people that are looking for them and as diverse as life decisions, but there are some common aspects to all of them, in particular, one personality trait. Success in any human undertaking, be it at the universities, at a job, in everyday life, in the arts, and even in marriage is highly correlated with Conscientiousness; and these findings have been replicated so many times and across so many different settings that it is one of the most solid conclusions a psychologist can provide. In this article, the concept of conscientiousness will be introduced along with the research findings on this personality trait related to life success.
Before going any further, however, a clear definition of correlation should be considered, because most of the findings in personality are expressed in correlations. Basically, a correlation is a statistical number —from -1 to +1— that mirrors the relationship that exists between two sets of data (Sirkin, 2006). The most classic correlation ever presented is the one that exists between weight and height. In this case, the data points to a correlation of .6, meaning that as weight increases, the height tends to increase as well, and the correlation is somewhat strong. If the number would have been negative, the interpretation would be, as height increases, weight decreases. And, if the correlation had been 0, one interpretation is that, as height increases, weight remains the same. There is much more to say about the concept of correlation but that is not important for the present article except for one more thing.
As any statistical textbook would say, correlation is not causation (Funder, 2012). To determine causation you should use other statistical analysis and probably an experimental design would be of help. The difference lies in that while causation explains that one variable produces the other, correlation only describes how two datasets behave between them. A popular meme that explains this difference clearly is the picture of a cat on a fallen roof. From that picture, the correct interpretation would be: “the cat did not make the roof fall (causation), probably something else did but now the cat is up on the fallen roof (correlation)”. The utility of correlation is that it highlights the relationships between variables and, based on the theory that scientists develop, helps to explain these relationships (Sirkin, 2006). In the example of the cat and the roof, it might be that cats love to sit in in curved surfaces.
This being clarified, this article will present the most important correlations found between different life aspects and conscientiousness.
Conscientiousness is a personality trait that describes a tendency that facilitates task and goal-directed behavior (John, 2021). It is the tendency to follow socially prescribed norms for controlling impulses, to be oriented towards a goal, to plan, and to delay gratification in the pursuit of a goal (Roberts et al., 2009). Even though the literature has proposed many others, like self-control, responsibility, traditionality, decisiveness, formality, and punctuality (Roberts et al., 2014), conscientiousness could be understood mostly by two sub-traits: orderliness, and industriousness.
Orderliness refers to the tendency to be “always prepared”, which includes tendencies toward neatness, cleanliness, and planfulness on the positive side, or disorderliness, and disorganization on the negative side. On the other hand, industriousness reflects the tendency to work hard, aspire to excellence, and persist in the face of challenge. These two sub-traits are the most conceptually overarching that have been proposed in the understanding of conscientiousness, however, they do not exhaust the whole conceptual complexity of conscientiousness that other sub-traits may explain, but what is important to note is that these complementary sub-traits show a lot of conceptual overlap with Orderliness and Industriousness. In the next paragraphs, the other sub-traits will be presented.
Self-control means the propensity to control impulses on the positive side, or to be reckless and impulsive on the negative side. Responsibility reflects the tendency to follow through with promises made to others and follow rules that make social groups work more smoothly. On the negative side, it reflects the tendency to be an unreliable partner in achievement settings and to break one’s promises.
Traditionality reflects the tendency to endorse and uphold rules and conventions found in society. This is an important idea in political psychology, in which research findings have shown a high score in conscientiousness in conservatives and a low score in liberals. Traditionality is also linked with Formalness which reflects the tendency to follow rules of decorum like keeping one’s appearance neat and clean, holding doors for others, and shaking hands. Finally, Punctuality reflects the simple tendency to show up on time to previously scheduled appointments.
In a few words, conscientiousness helps the individual to attain their goals. Indeed, almost any of the characteristics just described could be understood in these terms. Furthermore, this trait manifests itself in many life areas, but research has clearly identified eight of them: delay of gratification, ego control, effortful control, self-control, self-regulation, impulsivity, constrain, and grit (Roberts et al., 2014).
Coincidentally, some of these areas have been identified as key predictors of success. The delay of gratification, for instance, as a mechanism to postpone one pleasurable stimulus to get a better version of it later, has been related to better outcomes in health, wealth, and substance use. This was paradigmatically tested in the marshmallow experiment, in which a child was left alone in a room with a marshmallow with the promise that, if the child restrained themselves from eating the marshmallow, they would get another one (Mischel & Ebbesen, 1970). Later on, research showed that the life outcomes for those children that were capable of restraining themselves were much better than the ones for the children that did not restrain themselves and ate the marshmallow (Moffitt et al., 2011).
The specifics of the correlation between conscientiousness and life success has been found in a couple of life areas. In health, for instance, conscientious people tend to live longer lives, also because they engage in less risky behavior (Ozer & Benet-Martínez, 2006). They tend to suffer less from psychopathologies, and they abuse substances less than non-conscientious people, although they have a more or less high propensity to suffer from personality disorders. As for relationships, conscientious people experience more family satisfaction due to stability and also more romantic satisfaction (Ozer & Benet-Martínez, 2006).
The life area, however, which has the most impressive outcomes is the occupational and work one. As can be inferred from their personality traits, all these goal orientedness that characterize them can only lead to a better performance in both school and work settings. In fact, it has been observed that conscientious people perform better in both work and school, even better than people with higher Intelligence Quotient (Kertechian, 2018; Zajenkowski & Stolarski, 2015). Besides, since they tend to be more regulated and self-controlled, they have more capacity to devote to their short- and long-term goals than people with less self-control. This also helps in the ability to decide what to do, for instance, on a weekend instead of going out and partying, conscientious people might be able to stay at home and finish that book chapter for tomorrow’s class.
Last but not least, all this capacity for self-control also makes them less propense to engage in antisocial and criminal activity, which is a very important predictor of life success (Gullone & Moore, 2000).
As has been presented in this article, Conscientiousness reflects the natural tendency to be self-controlled, engage in goals attainments, and delay gratification. Both when alone and paired with other personality elements, like intelligence and social skills, this trait promises to be a high predictor of success in life. These findings are promising for both individuals and society: they help to better understand oneself, why one keeps choosing work over social activities, and how it is fine to be completely devoted to life goals. Of course, as has been also pointed out, these life goals are not limited only to career related ones, but even to family and romantic goals. Thus, these scientific findings encourage us to allow personalities manifest themselves in as many shapes and forms as they come in order to enrich human lives and societies in general.
Funder, D. C. (2012). The Personality Puzzle (pp. xxvii, 466). WW Norton & Co. URL: https://wwnorton.com/books/The-Personality-Puzzle/
Gullone, E., & Moore, S. (2000). Adolescent risk-taking and the five-factor model of personality. Journal of Adolescence, 23(4), 393–407. https://doi.org/10.1006/jado.2000.0327
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Roberts, B. W., Jackson, J. J., Fayard, J. V., Edmonds, G., & Meints, J. (2009). Conscientiousness. In Handbook of individual differences in social behavior (pp. 369–381). The Guilford Press. URL: https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2009-12071-000
Roberts, B. W., Lejuez, C., Krueger, R. F., Richards, J. M., & Hill, P. L. (2014). What is conscientiousness and how can it be assessed? Developmental Psychology, 50(5), 1315–1330. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0031109
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