Conscientiousness: The Big Five Personality Types Explained

From the lecture series: Why You are Who You Are — Investigations into Human Personality

By Mark Leary, PhD, Duke University

The fourth member of the big five is the trait of conscientiousness, which reflects the degree to which people are responsible and dependable. Conscientiousness comes down to whether people usually do what they should, and whether they try to do it well. Of course, responsibly doing what one should depends on several separate characteristics, and most of these underlying attributes are part of conscientiousness.

Image showing "Do what is right, not what is easy advice" or reminder
(Image: marekuliasz/Shutterstock)

This is the fifth article in a series about the big five personality types. You might prefer to start with the first post: The Science Behind the Five Major Personality Types

Measuring Your Level of Conscientiousness

It’s difficult to do things conscientiously without being organized and orderly, and conscientious people are more organized than less conscientious people are. You can often tell whether people are low or high in conscientiousness simply by seeing how orderly and organized they keep their things.

Conscientiousness also involves industriousness and persistence. Conscientious people work harder because getting things done and doing them well takes effort, and they are more likely to persist when tasks become difficult, boring, or unrewarding.

This is a transcript from the video series Why You are Who You Are: Investigations into Human Personality. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

A final component of conscientiousness is being able to make yourself do what needs to be done and to be able to resist the urge to do something else instead, particularly if the alternative is more fun than what you’re supposed to do. So, a key feature of conscientiousness is impulse control and a high level of self-discipline.

Impulsive people who don’t control themselves well have a hard time being conscientious. The picture one gets of the highly conscientious person is someone who plans ahead, does things on time, works hard, follows rules, is organized and orderly, and can exercise good self-control when needed.

A key feature of conscientiousness is impulse control and a high level of self-discipline. Click To Tweet

Conscientious People Make Healthier Decisions

Being consistently conscientious might not always be fun, but it does have payoffs. For example, conscientious people are healthier and live longer than less conscientious people. Research shows that conscientious people are less likely to smoke, use drugs, abuse alcohol, and become obese, and they’re more likely to exercise, practice safe sex, and drive safely. In fact, conscientiousness is related to how many traffic citations and car accidents people have. It’s also related to using smoke alarms in your house, seeing a doctor regularly, and following doctors’ orders when you’re sick.

Saying no to drugs concept image.
Research shows that conscientious people are less likely to smoke, use drugs, abuse alcohol, and become obese. (Image: Fran Marin/Shutterstock)

Conscientious people are good self-regulators and better at resisting unhealthy impulses.

What is it about conscientiousness that leads to these differences in healthy behavior? The most obvious answer is that many unhealthy behaviors reflect a lack of self-control, and as mentioned, conscientious people are good self-regulators who are better at resisting unhealthy impulses.

It might also be that conscientious people avoid certain unhealthy behaviors, such as excessive alcohol and drug use, because those behaviors interfere with being conscientious. You can’t do what you’re supposed to do if you’re drunk or hungover. Because conscientious people are more likely to follow norms and rules, they try to behave in ways that are healthy because that’s what people should do. Consequently, they try harder to eat well, drink in moderation, avoid tobacco, not speed while driving, and avoid other unhealthy behaviors.

Learn more about the causes of delinquent behavior in teenage boys

Higher Conscientiousness = Greater Success

Education ladder leading to future life success concept image.
Image: Andrew Rybalko/Shutterstock)

Higher conscientiousness is also associated with greater success in school, at work, and in close relationships. All other things being equal, conscientious students earn higher grades and conscientious employees make more money. At work, low conscientiousness is associated with absenteeism, stealing from your employer, and lower productivity on the job. Of course, certain people are somehow able to succeed even while being non-conscientious slackers, but overall, conscientious people fare better in school and at work.

In close relationships, people are more satisfied with their relationship the higher their partner is in conscientiousness. Conscientious people are less likely to get divorced than less conscientious people are. Conscientiousness is about doing what you’re supposed to do. Conscientious people hold up their end of the relationship better and are less likely to break the rules by being selfish, cheating, being violent, or doing other things that damage relationships. Because they’re more organized, orderly, and dependable, conscientious people give their partners fewer reasons to be dissatisfied. Their self-control may also help conscientious people hold their tongue when things are better left unsaid.

Learn more about extraversion and neuroticism

Internal Motivation

In one sense conscientiousness is a motive, a desire to be organized, to be dependable, to be careful, and to follow the rules.

Conscientiousness has mainly been described as a behavioral trait—a tendency to behave in an organized, careful, and responsible way. But in one sense, conscientiousness is a motive: To behave conscientiously. That is, if we ask the question, “Why do some people behave more conscientiously than other people do?” part of the answer is that they’re motivated to behave that way, they have a desire to be organized, to be dependable, to do things carefully, and to follow rules.

If you are a highly conscientious person, you know that you are sometimes motivated to be organized, orderly, and careful even when it doesn’t matter. But in many areas of life, it does matter, and conscientious people are motivated by both the realization that responsible behavior often produces benefits and by the fear of negative consequences that often result when people are not conscientious. They organize their lives, set goals, and pursue those goals in ways that will help them achieve whatever the outcomes are that they want. Less conscientious people are simply less motivated to behave in these conscientious ways.

Learn more about a sixth personality trait that’s starting to get attention

Now we come to the fifth and final trait of the big five: openness. We will talk more about this trait in the next post in this series.

Common Questions About Conscientiousness

Q: What other traits besides conscientiousness make up the Big Five personality traits?

The Big Five personality traits are considered our core personality traits which, along with conscientiousness, include neuroticism, openness, extraversion, and agreeableness.

Q: What does high conscientiousness actually mean?

If one is high in conscientiousness, it means they are reliable, responsible, dependable, and likely to demonstrate care in situations with others.

Q: How can you increase your conscientiousness?

There are a number of things one can do to increase or develop higher conscientiousness: 1) Be very social. 2) Pay attention to the specifics and details of situations. 3) Make plans daily and follow through with them, using reminders if needed.

Q: Can you learn conscientiousness?

Conscientiousness can be learned and developed just like any other trait, by repeatedly practicing it. Actions such as making your bed daily and keeping a neat appearance and an organized workspace are all small things that can lead to higher conscientious behavior.

This article was updated on December 1, 2020

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Openness: The Big Five Personality Types Explained
Agreeableness: The Big Five Personality Types Explained
Neuroticism: The Big Five Personality Types Explained