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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
- Mindful and thoughtful
Low Conscientiousness characteristics
- Procrastinates important tasks
- 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
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.
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.
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.
- Top executive
- Event planner
- Freelance writer
- Marketing Consultant
- Business Owner
- Advertising Executive
- Sales Representative
- Technical Support
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:
- 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.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders(5th ed.). Arlington, VA.
- Zanto TP, Gazzaley A. Fronto-parietal network: Flexible hub of cognitive control. Trends Cogn. Sci. 2013
- 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
- Kersting, K. (2003). Personality changes for the better with age. Monitor on Psychology, American Psychological Association
- “Psychological Predictors of Long Life: An 80-year study discovers traits that help people to live longer”. Psychology Today. June 5, 2012.
- 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.
- Kern, Margaret L.; Friedman, Howard S. (2008–2009). Do conscientious individuals live longer? A quantitative review. Health Psychology.