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May 3, 2021
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Conscientiousness vs. lack of direction - The Big Five Personality Traits, abstract painting of a woman with her face covered in paint

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Conscientiousness is one of the five personality traits of the Big Five personality theory. Conscientiousness is defined as the propensity to follow socially prescribed norms for impulse control, to be goal-directed, to plan, and to be able to delay gratification.

Conscientiousness describes a person’s ability to regulate impulse control in order to engage in goal-directed behaviours (Grohol, 2019). It measures elements such as control, inhibition, and persistency of behaviour.

The 5th Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental Disorders (DSM-V) states that conscientious people will:

  • Delay gratification by focusing on long-term goals, rather than immediate wants
  • Carefully consider their actions and decisions while taking the full impact into account
  • Learn from their past mistakes to avoid repeating the same issues
  • Work hard to produce high-quality content at home, work, and school.

Meticulosity versus Intuition

Conscientiousness is associated with meticulosity, discipline, a pronounced sense of duty and a strong need for professional accomplishment. A person scoring high in conscientiousness usually has a high level of self-discipline. These individuals prefer to follow a plan rather than act spontaneously. Their methodic planning and perseverance usually make them highly successful in their chosen occupation. Clearly, given its definition, conscientiousness should be an important correlate of a wide swath of social behaviour. Speaking in historical terms, traits associated with the domain of conscientiousness have some of the longest histories in psychology, beginning with Freud’s idea of the superego.

On the opposite end, an individual low in conscientiousness prefers flexibility in thoughts and actions, basing their choices on a more intuitive functioning system, have a high tolerance for unstructured tasks, and spontaneity. People who score low in this trait tend to postpone tasks and give up easily if problems occur. They present informal behaviour and have a naturally adventurous spirit.

Common Conscientiousness Traits

Each of the Big Five personality traits is made up of six facets or sub traits. These can be assessed independently of the trait that they belong to in a personality test.

The sub traits of the conscientiousness domain are:


High Conscientiousness characteristics

  • Competent
  • Organized
  • Dutiful
  • Self-disciplined
  • Deliberation
  • Organized
  • Mindful and thoughtful
  • Empathetic
  • Reliable
  • Hard-working
  • Goal-oriented

Low Conscientiousness characteristics

  • Disorganized
  • Careless
  • Procrastinates important tasks
  • Impulsive
  • Dislikes structure and schedules
  • Makes messes and doesn’t take care of things
  • Fails to return things or put them back where they belong
  • Fails to complete necessary or assigned tasks
Do you score high in Conscientiousness?
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Causes of Conscientiousness

The exact reason why people tend to be more COnscientious or less so has been the subject of considerable debate and research in psychology. As with many such debates, the question tends to boil down to two key contributors: nature or nurture.

The positive aspects of conscientiousness often make it the best psychological predictor of career success, health, and longevity after intelligence. Naturally, researchers have done a lot of work to find out which genetic and environmental factors lead to high conscientiousness.

Neural networks

The human brain has billions of neurons, and many of these neurons are connected in an observable pathway, serving a specific purpose. We call these pathways neural networks.

High Conscientiousness has been linked to a greater connectivity between several neural networks in the brain: The cognitive control network controls your executive functions  such as attention, planning, working memory, and social behavior. The salience network primarily decides which things you pay attention to and which things you ignore .

The Prefrontal Cortex

Some studies have shown a positive association between volumes of certain regions within the PFC and Conscientiousness – meaning people with higher conscientiousness are likely to have a slightly larger prefrontal cortex than others.

The widespread belief in the immutability of personality is misplaced. The new science of personality change states that people can and do change their personalities, through self-development, organizational events and processes, and external events.

Conscientiousness, like other traits, is influenced by both genetic and environmental factors. Encouragingly, conscientiousness increases for many people as they grow older.

Health and longevity

According to an 80-year old and ongoing study started in 1921 by psychologist Lewis Terman on over 1,500 gifted adolescent Californians, “The strongest predictor of long life was conscientiousness.” Specific behaviours associated with low conscientiousness may explain its influence on longevity. Nine different behaviours are among the leading causes of mortality – alcohol use, disordered eating (including obesity), drug use, lack of exercise, risky sexual behaviour, risky driving, tobacco use, suicide, and violence – are all predicted by low conscientiousness.

Health behaviours are more strongly correlated with the conventionality rather than the impulse-control aspect of conscientiousness. Apparently, social norms influence health-relevant behaviour, such as healthy diet and exercise, not smoking and moderate drinking, and highly conscientious people adhere the most strongly to these norms. Additionally, conscientiousness is positively related to health behaviours such as regular visits to a doctor, checking smoke alarms, and adherence to medication regimens. Such behaviour may better safeguard the health and prevent disease.

Conscientiousness and other Big Five Traits


Careers and conscientiousness trait

It has been argued that how a person’s career unfolds is increasingly affected by their own values, personality characteristics, goals and preferences. See what the best-suited careers for the people high or low on conscientiousness are.

Any profession that places importance on concentration, attention to detail and accuracy would be perfect for those with this trait. 
Careers for someone who is high in Conscientiousness
  • Top executive
  • Fundraiser
  • Event planner
  • Lawyer
  • Freelance writer
  • Marketing Consultant
  • Doctor
  • Actor
  • Business Owner
  • Advertising Executive
  • Politician
When someone is lower in this trait, they tend to dislike structure and be less organized. They generally prefer to make plans at the last minute and may have a difficult time completing their assignments without encouragement from others. They sometimes act without thinking, which can have a negative effect on those around them.
Careers for someone who is low in Conscientiousness
  • Firefighter
  • Sales Representative
  • Technical Support
  • Mechanic
  • Landscaper
  • Janitor
  • Driver

Conscientiousness Book Recommendations

Continue expanding your knowledge on the subject of conscientiousness trait and engage it by reading the best books we have selected for you:  


  1. John, O. P., & Srivastava, S. (1999). The Big-Five trait taxonomy: History, measurement, and theoretical perspectives. In L. A. Pervin & O. P. John (Eds.), Handbook of personality: Theory and research (Vol. 2, pp. 102–138). New York: Guilford Press.
  2. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders(5th ed.). Arlington, VA.
  3. Zanto TP, Gazzaley A. Fronto-parietal network: Flexible hub of cognitive control. Trends Cogn. Sci. 2013
  4. Fox, M. D. & alumni (2006),  Spontaneous neuronal activity distinguishes human dorsal and ventral attention systems, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 2006
  5. Kersting, K. (2003). Personality changes for the better with age. Monitor on Psychology, American Psychological Association
  6. “Psychological Predictors of Long Life: An 80-year study discovers traits that help people to live longer”. Psychology Today. June 5, 2012.
  7. Roberts, B.W.; Jackson, J.J.; Fayard, J.V.; Edmonds, G.; Meints, J (2009). “Chapter 25. Conscientiousness”. In Mark R. Leary, & Rick H. Hoyle (ed.). Handbook of Individual Differences in Social Behavior. New York/London: The Guildford Press. pp. 257–273. 
  8. Kern, Margaret L.; Friedman, Howard S. (2008–2009). Do conscientious individuals live longer? A quantitative review. Health Psychology.
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Big Five circumplex models of Personality
Work Attitude
Conscientiousness & 

He has difficulties controlling his impulsivity, being less resistant to temptations of any kind than other personalities. Consequently, he does a lot of things that he later regrets. Tends to follow easy paths, quickly giving up in case of obstacles. He surrenders to the present moment, acting as felt at the time.  

The Impulsive

Self-sacrifices, being oriented more towards satisfying the needs of others rather than his own. Manifests an inclination towards perfectionism and tends to guide himself by almost unreachable standards. He frequently feels unsatisfied and tries to manage the emotion by adhering to “must” type rigid rules.

The worrier
The Relaxed

Frequently needs external incentives to maintain motivation. Displays flexibility in action and manages better in new situations than in a stable well-structured environment with clear rules. Although he is less scrupulous in the tasks he undertakes, he is ultimately pleased with the quality of his work.

The Perseverent

Very ambitious when it comes to goals. Rarely gives up when facing obstacles and setbacks, even when the effort is greater than the benefits. He usually postpones rewards until after he finishes the existing plan. His motto in life is “always move forward”,  showcasing little flexibility.

Big Five circumplex models of Personality
Character Type
Agreeableness & 

Being self-centered and organized gives you an individual that is oriented to task, career and gaining personal success. If his personal interests overlap with those of the group he is in he can obtain high performances. If not, he will choose his own interests.

The Careerist

A trustworthy person, always willing to offer his help to those who solicit it. Good discipline, working power and social skills make him an exceptional team player. He often gets voluntarily involved in group tasks and solution-seeking brainstorms without getting any personal gains.

The Loyal
Openness to experience
The Comfortable

It is difficult to count on him because he is tough to motivate even to start an action, let alone finish in time a task. Even after he starts, he can easily give up if he finds anything he doesn’t like. He is focused more on his own level of comfort and less on others. If it can get him an extra benefit, he tends to overlook existing rules.

The Receptive

He is motivated by good intentions and wants to get involved and help others., but because of his disorganization and lack of structure, he oftentimes has difficulties honouring the promises he makes. He needs to be protected by others and have relationships based on trust and common sense.

Big Five circumplex models of Personality

Cognitive style
Openness & 

He prefers a methodical approach to solving tasks that precisely follows the rules without deviating from them. Instead, he has difficulties and anxiety when dealing with less structured problems or situations that don’t have a clear solution and require a creative way to solve. 

The Conformer

He makes the tasks he receives his own, restructuring the material logically and persuasively. Having a strong motivation for self-realisation and high aspirations, the analyst achieves the best performances in independent situations characterised by clear objectives and working procedures.

The Analyst
Openness to experience
The Reluctant

He prefers simple tasks that require traditional means of solving problems. Dislikes intellectual effort, preferring action to the detriment of analysis. Manifests resistance to learning new things, being complacent to applying what he already knows. Frequently disorganized, it’s not uncommon for him to ask for deadline extensions.

The Engineer

He uses his creativity and intuition to good use by generating countless ideas and projects since he is always interested in all things new. On the other hand, he has difficulties implementing his proposals, most of them remaining at the initial project stage because they are abandoned for new ones.

Big Five circumplex models of Personality
Task Approach Style
Conscientiousness & 

He has difficulties channelling his energy in a clear direction, wasting his forces. He is spontaneous and more efficient in tasks that involve unstructured social interactions than in activities that require a high level of precision and a low level of autonomy.

The Partylover

He has entrepreneurial qualities. He knows precisely what he must do, setting himself up with a schedule that he actually follows through. In stressful situations, he tends to force and impose his style on others. He sees obstacles as challenges that, once overcome, lead to more difficult tasks.

The Initiator
The Passive

Taking the initiative comes hard to him, and he mobilizes with great difficulty when confronting deadlines, frequently working at the last minute. He finds it hard to be enthusiastic and usually adopts a passive attitude of indifference. In teamwork, he rarely contributes with interventions and frequently falls behind.

The Cautious

He likes to work in his own rhythm, a bit slower. If he is not hurried, he does not have any problems with deadlines as long as they are known in advance and not arbitrarily modified. On the other hand, when facing changes, he adapts rather slow to the newly created context.