Conscientiousness: A Primer

In this essay from the Center on Children and Families’ Essay Series on Character and Opportunity, Brent Roberts explains that conscientiousness is a key component of what some are describing as character, saying that it might be something we want to actively change.

The personality trait of conscientiousness reflects the propensity to be self-controlled, responsible to others, hardworking, orderly, and rule abiding (Roberts, Jackson, Fayard, Edmonds, and Meints, 2009). It is not a singular entity, but rather a family of dispositions inclusive of specific facets, such as industriousness, self-control, orderliness, responsibility, and conventionality. And as a domain, it subsumes current popular constructs such as grit and delay of gratification (Roberts et al., 2014).

Conscientiousness predicts health and longevity, occupational success, marital stability, academic achievement, and even wealth (for a review, see Jackson and Roberts, in press). As a result, conscientiousness has become an important “non-cognitive” trait used in diverse fields such as economics, political science, and education.

Although conscientiousness is clearly important, the role of conscientiousness and most other predictors of human capital and well-being should be kept in perspective. There is a tendency to valorize our measures and predictors, especially when they are first introduced to the public. Character or personality appears to be the new big thing, albeit already controversial. Both proponents and critics should condition their rhetoric against the empirical findings. If one examines the contribution of any one predictor favored by different groups, such as poverty, cognitive ability, or character, to outcomes that people care about – love, work, and health, for example – the picture becomes quite clear. No one factor explains everything. No one factor is going to revolutionize the policy landscape. In fact, looking empirically at the merits of social background, intelligence, and personality, it is clear that each makes a small contribution adding up, collectively, to something large. This empirical edifice is what I would call the “diversified portfolio model of human functioning.” Like a retirement portfolio, human functioning and achievement are maximized by investments in many different qualities.

It is a gross exaggeration to suggest that dimensions like self-control, or grit, or mindset, are the sole most important domain for solving problems like poverty and crime. So while incorporating efforts to improve character are important, so are maintaining efforts to improve cognitive functioning, and alleviating poverty.

Changing Conscientiousness?

Personality traits are relatively enduring constellations of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are elicited in diverse situations and that develop with the proper time and circumstances (Roberts, 2009). That personality traits like conscientiousness are not only consistent, but also demonstrate systematic changes across the lifespan are now widely accepted findings (Roberts et al., 2006). For example, studies have found that individuals tend to become more conscientious with age. Conscientiousness is particularly interesting because it does not show systematic changes until young adulthood, at which time it appears to accelerate upwards for most populations. Most surprisingly, meaningful change in conscientiousness still occurs through midlife (Roberts, Walton, and Viechtbauer, 2006).

Since conscientiousness is both important to many outcomes and demonstrably changes across the life course leads to the inevitable question: should we intervene to increase conscientiousness? If conscientiousness does have such a pervasive positive effect, it almost becomes ethically problematic not to intervene. By what rationale would we tell persons with impulse control issues that they do not deserve our help? That their personality is so valuable in its current form that it should be preserved even if they desire to change? At the core of this example is one potential answer to the question of “should we intervene?” – if someone wants to change, then yes, by all means we should provide whatever tools we can to help individuals move up (or down) even a modicum of levels on conscientiousness.

Two issues that arise when considering interventions are first, would it be unfair to certain populations and second, would it have unintended negative consequences? Things get a bit sticky when we start thinking about paternalistic efforts to change conscientiousness in populations that may or may not want to change. One faulty idea that we should dispense with immediately is that poor people are not conscientious and therefore in need of good character training. To date, there is no reliable, systematic evidence that childhood socioeconomic standing predicts levels of conscientiousness in adulthood. Personality is indecorously democratic. Rich people can be as problematically impulsive as poor people are hard working. In some cases the well off may also be the ones most likely to cause problems in society because of their lack of conscientiousness: politicians, police, and businessmen come immediately to mind.

The second issue about interventions concerns the unintended, and potentially negative, consequences of accelerating growth in conscientiousness. This can be seen in the general revulsion that many feel in response to the Tiger Mom phenomenon or toward people that obsess single-mindedly over achievement. The pressure to work to exhaustion, which is clearly valuing conscientiousness above all other qualities, is often thought to engender stress, anxiety, and a distinct lack of creativity in children and cultures.

It may be then, that the association of conscientiousness to outcomes is curvilinear –the effect bends toward negativity at the high end of conscientiousness. If so, pushing children to maximize their conscientiousness may actually hurt them. Unfortunately, the science on the curvilinear effects of conscientiousness is mixed at best and cannot provide a clear guide.

Still, it is clear that efforts to increase conscientiousness in adolescence might have unintended negative consequences because of the particular social ecology of the teenage years. Several studies, for example, have shown that adolescents who are accelerated in terms of their personality, that is, higher on conscientiousness, are not held in high esteem by their peers (Klimstra et al., 2012). In the absence of a uniform expectation that all teenagers should be higher on conscientiousness, the unintended consequence of making some adolescents higher on conscientiousness would be to marginalize them at a critical juncture of development.

Finally, a push to elevate conscientiousness could undermine the long held value of creative achievement, especially in the U.S. According to some reviews, there is a negative relation between conscientiousness and creativity (Feist, 1998). To understand this negative relation we need to look closer at both creative achievement and conscientiousness. Creative achievement requires two things, coming up with original ideas and successfully implementing them (Amabile, 1996). One would assume that much of conscientiousness would contribute positively to the implementation of creative products. What drives the negative association is most likely the conventional aspect of conscientiousness undermining originality in particular.

So: conscientiousness is a key component of what some are describing as character. It is related to a wide range of achievements in life that most people and societies care about. But conscientiousness and other character traits are only one of many factors that contribute to people’s success and well-being. Like other character traits, conscientiousness is changeable. It might be something we want to actively change and in some cases there is a clear moral argument for doing so, especially for people who suffer as a consequence of being low in conscientiousness. In other cases, we should move cautiously in determining who should be targeted and especially the risk of negative unintended consequences from being the target of change.