Brent W. Roberts, PhD

 

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

 

Conscientiousness

What is Conscientiousness?

Conscientiousness refers to individual differences in the propensity to follow socially prescribed norms for impulse control, to be task- and goal-directed, to be planful, delay gratification, and follow norms and rules (John & Srivastava, 1999).  As can be seen by the definition, conscientiousness is not really a single, unitary entity.  Rather, it is better thought of as a conglomeration of more specific traits and trait domains. 

Our research on the lower-order structure of conscientiousness has revealed at least 5 replicable facets of conscientiousness:

1.  Orderliness:  The propensity to be organized and neat versus messy and disorganized.

2.  Self-control:  The propensity to inhibit prepotent responses.

3.  Industriousness: The propensity to work hard

4.  Responsibility: The propensity to be reliable, especially in social situations

5.  Traditionality: The propensity to follow socially proscribed norms and traditions

We have done several studies to investigate the underlying structure of conscientiousness and each of these studies has revealed specific facets that have not replicated. 

1.  Decisiveness: The willingness to make a decision and to be firm in one's commitments

2.  Punctuality: The propensity to show up on time to appointments

3.  Formality: The propensity to follow the rules of social decorum

3.  Virtue: The propensity to be honest and to tell the truth

These remaining facets should be considered preliminary and await further replication.

Why is Conscientiousness Interesting?

Conscientiousness is interesting for many reasons. As a trait domain conscientiousness shows an interesting association with age--it goes up.  Not only does it go up, but it does so well into middle and old age (Jackson et al., 2009).  This pattern is conspicuous for several reasons.  First, most developmental theories assume personality traits stop changing some time in childhood or adolescence.  The most charitable theories propose that traits continue to develop through young adulthood.  The fact that conscientiousness continues to increase well past young adulthood contradicts established scientific assumptions.  It is also something of a mystery.  Why would people continue to increase on conscientiousness in middle and old age?  What purpose do these changes serve?

Conscientiousness is also interesting because as a trait domain it represents one of the key psychological fulcrums between the individual and society.  Many societies spend inordinate time and energy attempting to make their citizens more conscientious. People are punished and rewarded in order to facilitate greater conscientiousness. Also, people who are more conscientious tend to grease the skids of social intercourse and social functioning--they make society work better for others by simply being conscientious. There is no more compelling personality trait domain for studying the interface between the individual and society.

Why is Conscientiousness Important?

Beyond being interesting, it also turns out that conscientiousness is important to human beings on a number of fronts.  The following list of studies points to just a few of the important social outcomes that conscientiousness predicts:

1.  Mortality: Friedman, H. S., Tucker, J. S., Tomlinson-Keasey, C., Schwartz, J. E., Wingard, D. L., & Criqui, M. H.  (1993).  Does childhood personality predict longevity? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 176-185.

2.  Physical Health, including diabetes, high blood pressure, strokes, and ulcers: Goodwin, R. D., & Friedman, H. S. (2006). Health status and the five-factor personality traits in a nationally representative sample. Journal of Health Psychology, 11, 643-654.

3.  Alzheimer's disease: Wilson, R. S., Schneider, J. A., Arnold, S. E., Bienias, J. L., & Bennett, D. A. (2007).  Conscientiousness and the incidence of Alzheimer Disease and mild cognitive impairment.  Archives of General Psychiatry, 64, 1204-1212.

4.  Glycaemic control in Type 1 diabetes: Vollrath, M. E., Landolt, M. A., Gnehm, H. E., Laimbacher, J.  & Sennhauser, F. H.  (2007).  Child and parental personality are associated with glycaemic control in Type 1 diabetes.  Diabetic Medicine, 24, 1028-1033.

4.  All the leading health-related behaviors that lead to premature mortality:  Bogg, T. & Roberts, B. W.  (2004).  Conscientiousness and health behaviors: A meta-analysis of the leading behavioral contributors to mortality.  Psychological Bulletin, 130, 887-919.

5.  Occupational attainment: Judge, T.A., Higgins, C.A., Thoresen, C.J., & Barrick, M.R. (1999). The big five personality traits, general mental ability, and career success across the life span. Personnel Psychology, 52, 621-652.

6.  Job performance: Hogan, J., & Holland, B.  (2003). Using theory to evaluate personality and job-performance relations: A socioanalytic perspective. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88, 100-112.

7.  Marital stability: Roberts, B. W., & Bogg, T.  (2004).  A 30-year longitudinal study of the relationships between conscientiousness-related traits, and the family structure and health-behavior factors that affect health.  Journal of Personality, 72, 325-354.

8.  Diminished drug use: Walton, K., & Roberts, B. W. (2004).  On the relationship between substance use and personality traits: Abstainers are not maladjusted.  Journal of Research in Personality, 38, 515-535.

9.  Children who suffer more injuries: van Aken, C., Junger, M., Verhoeven, M., van Aken, A. G., & Dekovic, M.  (2007).  Externalizing behaviors and minor unintentional injuries in toddlers: Common Risk Factors?  Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 32, 230-244.

 

How Do You Assess Conscientiousness?

Existing personality inventories and questionnaires are a good way to measure conscientiousness and its facets.  Though, based on our research there is little evidence that any existing personality inventory provides complete coverage of the entire breadth of conscientiousness.  Some inventories to consider:

1.  The NEO-PI-R: Covers the Industriousness facet very well, with some scales also emphasizing orderliness and self-control (the deliberation scale).  Does not provide a good assessment of responsibility or traditionality.

2. Goldberg's AB5C scales:  Acts much the same way as the NEO-PI-R.  Most of the scales tap industriousness and orderliness.  It does not provide a good coverage of responsibility or traditionalism.

3. The Hogan Personality Inventory:  The HPI is a perfect complement to the NEO-PI-R and the AB5C.  It emphasizes self-control, responsibility, and traditionalism and fails to tap industriousness and self-control.

4. The Jackson Personality Inventory: Provides subscales that measure orderliness, responsibility, and traditionalism, but not industriousness or self-control.

5.  The Multidimensional Personality Questionnaire:  Provides subscales that measure self-control and traditionalism.  The MPQ achievement scale should also be considered a marker for industriousness.  Does not provide coverage of orderliness or responsibility.

6.  The California Personality Inventory:  Mostly assesses responsibility which is a blend of conscientiousness and agreeableness.  Some scales also tap virtue.  It does not emphasize industriousness or orderliness as much as other inventories.

What about short Big Five measures, such as the NEO-FFI, BFI, TIPI, etc?  You know the old adage, you get what you pay for.  If you use quick-and-dirty measures of personality traits you should feel lucky if your measure predicts anything.  If you use a short measure under the assumption that you have measured "personality" you should be held in contempt for poor scholarship.  If you are forced to use a short measure because of necessity (e.g., large survey, time demands, etc.), you have my deepest sympathy.  If you have the choice, don't do it.  Be a responsible researcher.  Run a pilot study to see which facet of conscientiousness predicts your outcome best and use that in your survey instead of a quick-and-dirty measure of the Big Five.

Measures we've used:

1.  We've used Goldberg's AB5C scales under the assumption that they provide a broad coverage of the conscientiousness domain.  We were wrong.  That being said, you can use his IPIP system to put together facsimile's of scales from the NEO-PI-R, HPI, JPI, MPQ, and CPI in order to tap each facet of conscientiousness.

2.  We often use trait adjectives.  From an assessment perspective, trait adjectives are less than ideal because people sometimes don't understand the meaning of the word (puriant, probity, etc.).  Adjectives are also somewhat ill-defined because words often have multiple definitions, and people may be more or less familiar with the subtleties of these definitions. On other other hand, sometimes asking directly whether someone is "organized" works.  If you would like an adjective measure of conscientiousness, contact me: bwroberts@cyrus.psych.uiuc.edu

3.  One of my colleagues, Sasha Chernyshenko, developed scales to measure six facets of conscientiousness for his dissertation.  It is the only set of scales that was developed explicitly to assess the five replicable facets of conscientiousness (plus the Virtue facet).  Contact Sasha directly for a copy of the measure: sasha.chernyshenko@canterbury.ac.nz

4.  Another way to measure conscientiousness would be to assess the behaviors associated with each facet.  To that end, we have developed a behavioral checklist of conscientious acts/behaviors. Here's the paper that contains the checklist:

Jackson, J.J., Wood, D., Bogg, T., Walton, K.E., Harms, P.D., & Roberts, B.W.  (2010).  What do conscientious people do? Development and validation of the Behavioral Indicators of Conscientiousness (BIC).  Journal of Research in Personality, 44, 501-511.

 

Relevant Papers and Publications

Bogg, T. & Roberts, B. W.  (2004).  Conscientiousness and health behaviors: A meta-analysis of the leading behavioral contributors to mortality.  Psychological Bulletin, 130, 887-919.

Chernyshenko, O.S., Stark, S., Drasgow, F., & Roberts, B.W.  (2007).  Constructing personality scales under the assumption of an ideal point response process: Toward increasing the flexibility of personality measures.  Psychological Assessment, 19, 88-106.

Edmonds, G. E., Bogg, T., & Roberts, B.W. (2009). Are personality and behavioral measures of impulse control convergent or distinct predictors of health behaviors? Journal of Research in Personality, 43, 806-814.

Jackson, J. J., Bogg, T., Walton, K., Wood, D., Harms, P. D., Lodi-Smith, J. L., & Roberts, B. W.  (2009). Not all conscientiousness scales change alike: A multi-method, multi-sample study of age differences in the facets of conscientiousness.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 446-459.

Jackson, J.J., Wood, D., Bogg, T., Walton, K.E., Harms, P.D., & Roberts, B.W.  (2010).  What do conscientious people do? Development and validation of the Behavioral Indicators of Conscientiousness (BIC).  Journal of Research in Personality, 44, 501-511.

Roberts, B. W., Chernyshenko, O., Stark, S. & Goldberg, L. (2005). The structure of conscientiousness: An empirical investigation based on seven major personality questionnaires.  Personnel Psychology, 58, 103-139.

Roberts, B. W., Bogg, T., Walton, K., Chernyshenko, O., & Stark, S.  (2004). A lexical approach to identifying the lower-order structure of conscientiousness.  Journal of Research in Personality, 38, 164-178.

Roberts, B. W., Walton, K., & Bogg, T.  (2005).  Conscientiousness and health across the life course.  Review of General Psychology, 9, 156-168.

Roberts, B. W., Walton, K. & Viechtbauer, W.  (2006).  Patterns of mean-level change in personality traits across the life course: A meta-analysis of longitudinal studies. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 1-25.

Roberts, B. W., Kuncel, N., Shiner, R., N., Caspi, A., & Goldberg, L. R.  (2007). The power of personality:  The comparative validity of personality traits, socio-economic status, and cognitive ability for predicting important life outcomes.  Perspectives in Psychological Science, 2, 313-345.

Roberts, B. W., Smith J., Jackson, J. J., & Edmonds, G.  (2009). Compensatory conscientiousness and health in older couples.  Psychological Science, 20, 553-559.

Roberts, B.W., Jackson, J.J., Berger, J., & Trautwein, U.  (2009).  Conscientiousness and externalizing psychopathology: Overlap, developmental patterns, and etiology of two related constructs.  Development and Psychopathology, 21, 871-888.

Roberts, B. W., Jackson, J. J., Fayard, J. V., Edmonds, G., & Meints, J.  (2009).  Conscientiousness (Chapter 25, pp 369-381).  In M. Leary & R. Hoyle (Eds.), Handbook of individual differences in social behavior.  New York, NY: Guilford.

Trautwein, U., Ludtke, O., Roberts, B.W., Schnyder, I., & Niggli, A.  (2009). Different forces, same consequence: Conscientiousness and competence beliefs are independent predictors of academic effort and achievement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97, 1115-1128.