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Can You Be Conscientious <em>and</em> Creative?

Long-term planning and self-control is useful when one is directing his or her self toward a standardized form of achievement. But what about creative achievement?
08/31/2011 08:41am ET | Updated October 31, 2011
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When it comes to success, conscientiousness seems like a great thing. All else being equal, the person who has tenacity, persistence, stamina and grit is more likely to be more successful than the person who is lazy and unmotivated. Over 25 years of research supports this commonsense view: Conscientiousness is the most consistent and best predictor of both job and academic performance. Clearly, long-term planning and self-control is useful when one is directing his or her self toward a standardized form of achievement. But what about creative achievement -- where the goal is often never really known ahead of time and one must constantly fight the status quo and deviate from the standard path to create something new, perhaps even revolutionary?

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic found that creative ability was a better predictor of an original final year dissertation than conscientiousness whereas more conventional well-defined assignments such as written examinations and continuous assessment (e.g., class participation, attendance, and assignments) were better predicted by conscientiousness. Additionally, they found that creative individuals reported a preference for creative rather than conventional forms of assessment. In fact, creative individuals least preferred multiple-choice exams, timed written examinations and continuous assessment, when these forms of assessment formed the largest contribution to their GPA!

Other researchers have found interesting interactions between conscientiousness and creativity. Laura King and her colleagues found an interaction between creativity and conscientiousness such that for those individuals with low creative ability, higher conscientiousness was related to more creative accomplishments whereas for those individuals with high creative ability, conscientiousness was negatively related to creative accomplishments. They suggest there may be two different pathways to creative accomplishments:

"One way to produce creatively is through high openness and high creative ability, as most conceptualizations of the creative personality would suggest. However, it is possible for one who lacks creative ability to produce creatively through high conscientiousness."

Jennifer George and Jing Zhou found an interaction in a business setting. Like prior studies, they found no direct relationship between conscientiousness and employee creativity (as measured by supervisors) among workers. However, for employees high in conscientiousness, creativity was lowest if they were closely monitored and working in an environment where

  • coworkers were not helpful,
  • coworkers provided them with inaccurate information, or
  • coworkers contributed to an overall negative work situation.

In contrast, employees low in conscientiousness displayed the lowest levels of creativity when they were closely monitored regardless of the environment.

Veena Prabhu and her colleagues found that motivation orientation plays a role. While they found that perseverance was not directly related to creativity (consistent with other studies), when people were intrinsically motivated (motivated to achieve for the intrinsic joy and pleasure of doing so), perseverance was positively related to creativity whereas when people were motivated to achieve for extrinsic rewards (e.g., a "good job!", money), conscientiousness was negatively related to creativity.

These studies are fascinating, but measure conscientiousness as a broad, stable personality trait. Recently, however, there is an emerging consensus that conscientiousness is not just one trait but is comprised of two related but separable aspects: industriousness/achievement and dependability/orderliness. Although both aspects have to do with working hard, the reasons for engaging in the work may differ. Henry Moon suggests that the achievement aspect of conscientiousness has a "self" focus whereas the dependability component has an "other" focus.

Some people may work hard because of personal reasons-- such as achievement and self-enhancement-- whereas others may do so because of a sense of responsibility or duty (also related to "obsessive passion"-- see "Why Your Passion for Work Could Ruin Your Career"). A need for achievement is related to perseverance and grit whereas those who score high in dependability are concerned about being careful, responsible, and orderly. Therefore, according to the latest thinking, grit is only a subset of conscientiousness, but isn't all there is to conscientiousness. Researchers have criticized traditional measures of Conscientiousness for confounding the two components by combining them under one broad factor.

If we split up conscientiousness, what is the relationship with creativity? In a paper entitled "The Big Five personality dimensions: Implications for research and practice in human resource management", Michael Mount and Murray Barrick looked at the combined effects of a number of studies and found that dependability correlated -.04 with creativity whereas achievement correlated .19.

A more recent study is even more compelling. In their paper titled "Conscientiousness Is Not Always a Good Predictor of Performance: The Case of Creativity" (published in The International Journal of Creativity & Problem Solving), Roni Reiter-Palmon and her colleagues looked at the effects of each component of conscientiousness on creativity independent of the other. Across two separate studies, they had undergraduates fill out self-report measures of conscientiousness. Measures of competence, achievement striving, and self-discipline were combined to form the achievement component, and measures of order, dutifulness, and deliberation were combined to form the dependability component. Additionally, in one of their studies, they had participants report their creative achievement and in another study participants completed a test of creative problem solving.

In both studies, neither achievement, dependability nor overall conscientiousness scores were, by themselves, related to creativity. However, once they used a statistical procedure called regression to remove the common element across achievement and dependability (presumably, a disposition to work hard), they found that those scoring higher on the achievement component tended to be more creative whereas those scoring higher on the dependability component tended to be less creative. The researchers concluded that

"the use of the broader factor of conscientiousness to predict creativity provides a limited and misleading picture ... The results of this study, therefore, provide support to the recommendation that the full factor of conscientiousness should not be used as a predictor when creativity is an important aspect of that performance."

Their regression coefficients were far from perfect, so of course there will be lots of individual creative achievers who score high in dependability, and many scoring low in achievement. Also, being a regression analysis, it's not clear exactly how achievement, dependability, and creativity are related to one another. Still, the effects are significant and welcome an explanation. I can think of a few possibilities.

Perhaps those who can deal with disarray also have high tolerance for ambiguity -- a trait also associated with creativity. Another possibility is that those with less tolerance for orderliness may also have less tolerance for rules in general, and by breaking rules they tend to be more creative. Yet another possibility is that creative people may have more confidence in their ideas, so see less of a need to depend on others, which eventually leads to higher levels of creativity. This lack of caring what others think (creative people don't tend to be people pleasers), and lack of a desire to do everything just right may be exactly what is needed to persevere in the long-term, despite setbacks and despite criticism. Failure is a crucial part of creativity, and too much dependability/orderliness may prevent the amount of failure necessary for creative greatness.

In his classic review of the relationship between intelligence, creativity, and personality, Frank X. Barron and David Harrington concluded that creative people tend to take more risks and are more impulsive (low conscientiousness) but they also see themselves as competent and hard-working (high conscientiousness). This seeming paradox (that creative people are simultaneously both high and low in conscientious) can be resolved by recognizing there are two different aspects of conscientiousness, each one with opposite correlations with creativity. Creative individuals tend to be more self-focused, independent, and intrinsically motivated (lower dependability/orderliness) while also being more driven, persistent and gritty (higher industriousness/achievement).

I'd be interested to know how the different aspects of conscientiousness differ by creative domain. In his large review of the literature, Gregory Feist found found a positive relationship between conscientiousness and scientific performance and a negative relationship between conscientiousness and artistic performance. Perhaps scientists can't afford to be as disorderly as artists. Or, perhaps only conventional scientists can't afford to be disorderly, whereas revolutionary, creative scientists show the profile of the typical artist. Lots of intriguing possibilities for future research.

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