On every version of the Big 5 personality test I find, I usually score highest on the trait of conscientiousness when compared with the other four dimensions on the assessment (openness, extroversion, neuroticism and agreeableness).
I didn’t read much into it at first, but experts say of all personality assessments, the Big 5 test is the most accurate and indicative of real human behavior. It doesn’t sort anyone into one “type” or the other; rather, it gives you a score on each of the five traits.
So I’ve become more attuned to research detailing the effects of being ranked high in conscientiousness. In a 2014 study, researchers found that high-achievers at work tended to have highly conscientious spouses at home. Another study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that 8-year-olds who scored high in conscientiousness tended to lead longer lives than others, a result that’s been replicated in additional research. And according to a 2016 study, highly conscientious workers tend to be more productive and earn more money when compared to employees who lacked the trait.
So what on earth is this secret-sauce called conscientiousness? Below, experts break it down and explain if you can adopt the personality chracteristic:
Traits Of Conscientious People
Art Markman, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas-Austin and author of “Bring Your Brain to Work,” said conscientiousness largely consists of two corresponding factors.
“One is the degree to which you are motivated to complete the tasks that you start,” he said. “The second is the degree to which you feel an obligation to follow the rules ... People who are highly conscientious tend to be both prompt with completion of tasks and are also sticklers for the rules.”
This explains why I struggle juggling multiple unfinished projects at once. I love checklists, as well as creating efficient systems for which I can accomplish more in less time. And I always follow deadlines and instructions given to me. Most highly conscientious people likely are the same.
Karla Ivankovich, a clinical counselor and psychology lecturer at North Park University in Chicago, said the motivation factor among highly conscientious people is a huge perk. “Research across the board puts these people among the most highly functioning individuals in society,” she said. “They excel because they plan to succeed.”
Ivankovich added that highly conscientious people are also cautious, so they may be healthier than others “because they engage in fewer high-risk behaviors like smoking and drinking” while also spending more time working on their fitness.
Basically, highly conscientious people are driven, dependable and their characteristics tend to lead them to make healthier choices. And while all of that is incredibly beneficial, there are also downsides. (We’ll get to those in a moment.)
Conscientiousness In Action
How does conscientiousness translate in different contexts? As romantic partners, highly conscientious people tend to “thoughtful, which can make them loyal and loving,” Ivankovich said.
But that may not be appreciated by all. “Highly conscientious people can also be perceived by their partner as boring, because they are cautious and play it safe,” Ivankovich added. “They may be driven to try a new idea but will want to master it before they participate with others.”
Markman said most highly conscientious partners will remember everything from date night to birthdays and anniversaries; they’ll also love to make plans and keep them. “However, they may also have some difficulty understanding how their less conscientious partners fail to do the same,” Markman said. “That can be a source of friction.”
On the job, there are pros and cons with highly conscientious people.
“On the one hand, as either a boss or employee, you will carry through on the commitments you make,” Markman said. “Supervisors know who their highly conscientious employees are, because they can rely on those people to take care of assignments.”
On the other hand, Markman said highly conscientious employees very often get “bogged down in tasks they are given, because people keep coming to them for assistance with key tasks.” Also, “highly conscientious bosses may have trouble prioritizing tasks, because they feel like everything needs to be completed well,” Markman said. “In reality, not every task requires someone’s best effort.”
Their zeal for perfectionism helps highly conscientious people avoid mistakes ― but it often results in too much time spent obsessing over the little things.
Another fascinating observation is that there’s often an upper limit to conscientious people’s success ― they might be the company’s best workers, but they are rarely the visionaries.
“People who are moderate-to-low in conscientiousness often engage in more innovation in the workplace than people high in conscientiousness,” Markman said. “Conscientious people are motivated to follow the rules, and much of innovation is about breaking established norms to do things in a new way. In addition, a lot of innovation requires learning things that do not seem relevant in the moment, but will turn out to be important later.”
Innovators spontaneously run down rabbit holes and chase ideas when they were supposed to completing other assigned tasks, Markman said. Conscientious people will concentrate on completing the current task first, allowing less room for breaking new ground.
Can You (And Should You) Develop Conscientiousness?
Research has shown that you can change your personality, to some degree. One study from 2016 showed that people who desired to change elements of their personalities in ways that aligned with their values tended to see a positive change in well-being over time. But that growth is hard-earned and comes with some caveats.
What’s interesting and time-tested about the Big 5 is how little these traits evolve in an individual person, Markman said. If you’re conscientious when you graduate high school, you probably always will be ― same with agreeableness, open-mindedness, extrovertedness and neuroticism.
“After you reach adulthood, traits remain fairly stable over the lifespan,” he said. “There are changes in personality that will happen over time, but for most people, [such changes] tend to be slow to develop and small overall.”
It’s not worth trying to completely rewire yourself; each trait carries pluses and minuses, after all. Those who rank high in openness tend to be creative and original, but may lack focus; those who are more agreeable tend to make others feel at ease, but may also struggle to speak up for themselves; individuals who are higher in neuroticism may be more self-aware, but cynical; people who score higher in extroversion may adapt easily to new social situations and activities, but can also spread themselves too thin.
But if you’re low in conscientiousness and want to experience more of the positive aspects associated with having this trait, Markman said there are ways to do it. If you are not completing tasks, or are getting in trouble for violating rules, he suggests focusing on two areas.
“First, surround yourself with people who can help you to complete what you start,” he said. “Give romantic partners permission to nag you about things. Give colleagues and bosses the power to set your schedule and to remind you of key deadlines.”
A study published in The Journals of Gerontology showed that social support can increase a person’s conscientiousness in later adulthood.
Second, create structures to help you remember the important things in your life ― both big and small.
“Keep a calendar of birthdays and anniversaries,” Markman said. “Have an agenda at work that you use regularly to ensure that you don’t miss important assignments. Left to your own devices, you may never become a more conscientious person, but you can at least ensure that you minimize the problems” from not being so.
And don’t forget ― highly conscientious people can learn from other traits, too. I’m still trying to let go more and go outside my comfort zone. Although I’m happy to be a rule-follower much of the time, chasing spontaneous ideas and adventures also keep me more well-rounded; the more carefree people in my life remind me of that.