Is Conscientiousness all it’s cracked up to be?

Conscientiousness is a Big 5 trait associated with commitment and persistence, the skill of staying on track and battling through despite setbacks and minor hiccups. It shares many of its characteristics with other traits such as grit (indeed, many researchers see grit as simply conscientiousness repackaged). Persistence is a trait in its own right and is included in the Temperament and Character Inventory, TCI (an alternative model to the Big 5).

However, the TCI model also includes a number of subscales of persistence: eagerness of effort, work hardened, ambition and perfectionism. Angela Duckworth mentions many of these factors as part of her ambitious grit model, describing grit as perseverance and passion for long-term goals.

Whether or not these traits are actually describing the same quality is perhaps best left for others, yet I think we can safely assume that when we talk of conscientiousness, we are perhaps also referring to the key elements of these other constructs.

In his model of academic buoyancy, Andrew Martin uses the term commitment which I think might indeed be a better description of the quality that is needed to bounce back from day to day adversity. Hopefully, the reasoning behind this assertion will become clear. For now, however, I’ll stick to describing what we have discovered about conscientiousness.

What then, do we understand about this seemingly super-trait? Conscientious people are well organised, disciplined and efficient. They work hard and will continue going until the job is done, however, they can also be perfectionists, so the job is never done to their satisfaction. This also means that they are more likely to be workaholics. They are good planners and excellent at following instructions so when you give them a job to do they will complete within the given parameters. In other words, they are obedient and very good at following instructions (often to the letter). This obedient nature and conformist approach, however, can mean that they are less creative than their less conscientious peers, but this relationship is complex.

Conscientiousness and Academic Performance.

Studies consistently find that conscientiousness students have a higher Grade Point Average (although openness is a good trait in relation to verbal SAT scores). Neuroticism (or emotional stability) has been found to impair academic performance in some studies. The relationship between extroversion and academic performance is less clear, however. Some studies have found a positive relationship, some a negative one and some have found zero relationship. Students high in conscientiousness also tend to score low on measures of procrastination.

Conscientiousness does, therefore, seem to be an overriding trait in academic success. Curiously, however, this seemingly super-trait doesn’t translate particularly well to the workplace and we might tentatively conclude that the skills needed to achieve in school aren’t necessarily the ones required in the wider world and, specifically in certain job roles.

Unfortunately, conscientiousness is also linked to difficulties in changing direction when problems arise. As long as everything is going according to plan, the conscientiousness student will toil on, but when circumstances change suddenly, performance suffers. This seems particularly curious, seeing as conscientiousness supposedly helps us to recover from failure. One would assume that a key element of skills such as buoyancy is the ability to adapt to changing circumstances, for example, adapting our problem-solving strategies because our prior one led to disappointment.

One possible explanation for this odd paradox involves what has been described as sub-factors of conscientiousness. Rather than being a single unitary trait, conscientiousness actually involves two distinct elements. One of these sub-factors is related to achievement (working hard, persistence, goal-directed behaviour) while the other, known as the dependable sub-factor, relates to obedience, conformity and the desire to please. This is perhaps why conscientiousness appears to have an unusual relationship with creativity.

Conscientiousness and Creativity: An Uneasy Relationship.

In general, creativity isn’t strongly linked to conscientiousness. This makes intuitive sense because creative people rely more on spontaneity, which isn’t exactly one of conscientiousness’s strongest points. Surely creative people have to think outside the box (for want of a less jingoistic term) and break the rules, not blindly obey instructions and colour within the lines? Openness is the trait choice for the creative type; the desire to explore and experiment, daydream and engage in deep and meaningful dialogue.

That said, surely creative people are still hardworking and persistent? After all, you don’t become a published writer without doggedly sending that award-winning manuscript to every publisher in the Writers and Artists Yearbook. Vincent van Gogh is said to have created nine-hundred paintings and over a thousand drawings and sketches. When we take into account that he only ever sold one painting in his entire lifetime, it’s difficult for us to accuse him of not being a persistent fellow.

And this is pretty much what the research has discovered. Creative people tend to score highly on the achievement component of conscientiousness but low on the dependable component; they are equally hard working and reliable, they just don’t like to be tied down by rules and regulations. It would, therefore, appear that skills like academic buoyancy are perhaps more closely related to a particular component of conscientiousness rather than the entire trait.

What’s Important?

Students need to work hard, follow instructions, obey the rules and persist until the job is done. But they also need sometimes to be spontaneous, flexible and creative and, yes, rule-breakers. There is certainly a growing interest in how we create the best environment for certain favourable traits to emerge, even though personality has an annoying unstable tendency during childhood and adolescence.

The suggestion made following the 2016 publication of the Sutton Trust report (A Winning Personality) that schools should teach extroversion remains a curious one for a number of reasons. First of all, while extroversion might be liked to higher earnings, its relationship to academic success in much more complex. Secondly, character traits aren’t the same as personality traits – we can probably nurture positive character traits, but personality traits (such as extroversion) are more likely to be innate and heritable.

We, therefore, reach a problematic conclusion; do we encourage patterns of behaviour that result in obedient, reliable yet inflexible individuals, or do we allow a little bit of chaos that allows for more creative, spontaneous and flexible learners?

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