Conscientiousness: you’ve probably heard the term, and you probably have some idea of what it means (maybe even a very good idea). It’s one of the Big Five personality traits, and it’s received increasing attention over the last decade(s) from not only personality researchers, but also from experts in business, economics, and education.
Conscientiousness is a broad trait that encompasses a variety of behaviors and attitudes, and can be dryly defined as a “socially prescribed impulse control that facilitates task- and goal-directed behavior, such as thinking before acting, delaying gratification, following norms and rules, and planning, organizing, and prioritizing tasks”. A more accessible definition of conscientiousness is a person’s ability and tendency to stay organized, control their actions and emotions, and follow social expectations. While this might not sound like such a big deal, by taking a closer look at recent research we can see why this personality trait is getting so much attention.
What does Conscientiousness predict?
If you work at a medium to large size company, you probably have a human resources or hiring manager, and this person is probably fascinated with conscientiousness right now. Why? Personality surveys testing for conscientiousness have been found to be able to predict high job performance better than almost any other type of assessment. But conscientiousness can also predict a whole host of positive outcomes over the course of a person’s life.
For instance, this trait predicts academic achievement in students of all ages. On average, students high in conscientiousness are more likely to receive academic recognition, honors, and high grades in school, and less likely to violate rules. Students who are high in conscientiousness and set academic goals study hard and put in more effort than their classmates, leading to consistently higher GPAs and standardized test scores (1), (2).
In addition to being a great academic predictor, Conscientiousness has been shown to be able to predict honest behavior from participants in research studies (3). For instance, researchers at the University of South Florida ran a study in which they offered college students class credit for the amount of time that they spent filling out personality tests in the lab. The students were responsible for recording and reporting how long they spent in the lab – and unbeknownst to them, they were being secretly observed. The students who scored lower on Conscientiousness were more likely to lie and say they had been in the lab for longer than was actually the case.
In studies of business and organization leaders, conscientiousness has been shown to predict a key component of ethical leadership: role clarification (4). (Role clarification is the process of making expectations and priorities clear to team members, and keeping communication open and transparent.) Combine this with the fact that high-conscientiousness individuals are more likely to do a job well and behave honestly, and it’s no wonder that companies are so interested in hiring people with high conscientiousness.
Outside of the workplace, conscientiousness also predicts physical health, Alzheimer’s disease, longevity, marital stability and major depression (5).
What does a conscientious person actually look like?
A group of researchers from several colleges around the country worked together to determine what highly conscientious individuals actually do in their daily lives to help answer the question: What would it look like to have high conscientiousness?
Over the course of several studies, the researchers uncovered the following patterns:
“Conscientious individuals are clean and tidy, work hard, follow the rules of society and social decorum, think before acting, and are organized. For example, conscientious people tend to write down important dates, comb their hair, polish their shoes, stand up straight, and scrub floors. People who are less conscientious exceed their credit limit, watch more television, cancel plans, curse, oversleep, and break promises” (6).
The researchers also made an important point: when we think of a person as having high conscientiousness, we don’t just mean that they brush their teeth everyday. Although it is likely that they do brush daily, we operate under the assumption that this behavior is the expression of a trait – something we can think of as “a true characteristic of this person” – and that this trait also predicts other behaviors associated with conscientiousness.
In other words, conscientiousness doesn’t work like this:
It works like this:
Can I develop conscientiousness?
Does this mean that it is pointless to try to develop conscientiousness? Absolutely not. In hierarchical models of personality, traits exist as neurobiological structures that govern thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. (That means that a trait like Extraversion actually exists somewhere in the brain, as opposed to say, the “soul”, or “spirit”, or whatever.) Neuroscience research over the past decades has shown time and time again that the human brain is incredibly plastic, and organic living system that is able to change itself in response to the complexity of its environment. It stands to reason that if higher order traits are neurobiological structures in the brain, these traits can be changed through deliberate practice. This means that conscientiousness can be developed through deliberate practice, commitment, and discipline.
Come up with a plan to focus on a few behaviors that you want to deliberately practice and put effort into. Block out a time every day that you write down important dates on a calendar. Or practice an instrument for 15-20 minutes a day with a timer. Make a to-do list before sitting down to work for the day. Find a fitness challenge, and record a your daily achievements and efforts in a notebook. Whatever you choose to do, make sure it is something that is personally relevant and matters to you.
(1) Trautwein, U., Ludtke, Oliver, Roberts. B., W., Schnyder, I., Niggli, A. (2009). Different Forces, Same Consequence: Conscientiousness and Competence Beliefs Are Independent Predictors of Academic Effort and Achievement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
(2) Ivcevic, Zorana, Brackett, M. (2014) Predicting school success: Comparing Conscientiousness, Grit, and Emotion Regulation Ability. Journal of Research in Personality.
(3) Horn, J., Nelson, C., E., Brannick, M.,T. (2004). Integrity, Conscientiousness, and Honesty. Psychological Reports.
(4) Kalshoven, K., Hartog, D., N., D., De Hoogh, A., H., B., D. (2011). Ethical leader behavior and Big Five Factors of personality. Journal of Business Ethics.
(5) Roberts, B., W., Krueger, R., F., Lejuez, C., Richards, J., M. (2012). What is conscientiousness and how can it be assessed?
(6) Jackson, J., J., Wood, D., Bogg, T., Walton, K., E., Harms, P., D., Roberts, B., W. (2010). What do conscientious people do? Development and validation of the Behavioral Indicators of Conscientiousness (BIC). Journal of Research Perspectives.