Conscientiousness: The Ruthless Pursuit of Order.

Of all the interplay between character traits, I find the relationship between conscientiousness and openness the most interesting.

The lines are blurred, of course, especially when you break these traits down into their respective aspects, but it appears there is an inverse correlation.

This makes sense when you consider that lateral thinking requires taking an idea from one domain and applying it to another. It involves exposure to lots of different things.

The jack-of-all-trade types.

When you ruthlessly chase a goal, you have to compartmentalise the world. You’re less concerned with out-of-the-box thinking. Dedication to the task at hand means excluding everything else.

This is what it takes to be a very successful master of one.

The Benefits of Conscientiousness

Conscientiousness can be broken down into the following two aspects: Industriousness and Orderliness. 

Those who score high in Industriousness are driven, focused and determined. They finish what they start. I’m sure you’ve all heard of the buzzword known as Grit? 

Well, it’s the same thing.

Those high is Orderliness want everything to be in its place, every detail taken care of. They hate mess (and messy people). They believe in following the rules and dislike having their routine disrupted. 

So, to summarise, conscientious people may be described as careful, reliable, well organised, self-disciplined, and persevering.

Well sign me up batman! 

No wonder our results-obsessed society makes a song and dance about this character trait. It’s easy to see why you would want to be more conscientious. 

What’s less easy to see are the costs associated with higher conscientiousness.

And let’s be clear, conscientious is the highest predictor of success after IQ. 

To quote this paper from the American Psychological Association, “It is one of the most reliable predictors of work outcomes, including job performance, leadership, income, and occupational attainment. 

It also predicts marital stability and, conversely, a tendency not to experience divorce. Finally, conscientiousness is an independent predictor of major depression above and beyond other personality traits, such as neuroticism

It seems that if one is interested in either living or promoting the possibility of a long, healthy, successful, and happy life, one should be interested in conscientiousness.”

Wowza! Like I said…

But this begs the question, since the benefits are so obvious, what are the costs of being highly conscientious? What are the benefits of being unconscientious?

The Ruthless Pursuit of Order

Now, here’s where shit gets really interesting.

It turns out that orderliness is one of the strongest predictors of conservatism. Of course, conservatism is part of the process by which we establish borders and barriers between things. 

It’s resistance to change. Why? Because change often brings a certain amount of chaos along with it. And too much chaos can be a dangerous thing.

I find this infinitely fascinating because guess what the highest predictor of liberal beliefs in character traits are? That’s right, openness.

Open people like to think laterally. They want information and ideas to flow freely because it opens up new possibilities. They want to flatten borders and tear down walls. Open people hate being boxed in.

What is the definition of creativity if not to think outside the box?

But those who aren’t creative couldn’t care less. They crave order to a much higher degree. They want to remain dutifully within the damn box.

Of course, there are pros and cons at either end of the liberal/conservative divide here. Boxes are both good and bad. They provide protection but also restrict the free flow of information and ideas. 

Now, one of the biggest killers historically has been pathogens. You’re probably wondering what that has to do with anything?

Well, high orderliness is linked to heightened disgust sensitivity. One prominent example of this, sitting at the extreme end of the spectrum, is obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Another theory (called the parasite stress hypothesis) found a very high correlation between the prevalence of pathogens in authoritarian regimes

The reason for this, in part, is because diseases historically weren’t well understood, if at all. Its control often depended on the adherence to ritualised behavioural practises. 

But of course, people didn’t know which ritualised behavioural practices reduced the risk of infection. So, to be sure, best to conform across the board.

It was foreigners, non-conformers, dissenters, and other “dirty liberals” who often posed the most significant health threat. 

Herein lies the biggest danger of being too conscientious. I think the word tolerance fits the bill very nicely – or rather, intolerance

Most authoritarian regimes are driven by their need for order at the expense of everything else. It takes over. 

To use an extreme example, Hitler was one conscientious motherfucker. The man went from failed artist (perhaps, unsurprisingly, now that I think about it) to commandeering the most powerful military in the world in the matter of two decades. 

He was incredibly focused and determined in the pursuit of his goals. Do we think that was a good thing? No. Why? Because his values were fucked, and so, as a result, was the rest of Europe. 

Here is where the idea of pathogens will raise hairs on the back of your neck. Hitler often used the metaphor that the Aryan race was a body threatened by pathogens. 

Of course, the Nazi party enacted many twisted policies in the name of “racial hygiene.” And how do you deal with pathogens? You sterilise them, of course. You destroy them. 

You set fire to them.

This brings up a point I want to make about “success.” The ability to implement an idea isn’t nearly as important as the idea itself. If you’re driven by terrible values, we may all suffer the consequences. 

How to Become More Conscientious

On the flip side – to come back to the benefits of conscientiousness – a good idea isn’t worth a damn if you’re unable or unwilling to implement it. 

This is where open types can struggle. They come up with a myriad of excellent ideas that they often fail to put into practice. 

Part of the problem is their nature. They shrug their shoulders at mess. They are the laid-back, happy-go-lucky, Big Lebowski types. 

Unconscientious people are much more interested in seeing where the wind takes them.

This makes them more adaptable, of course. It means they are more accepting of change, but it can come at a significant longer-term cost if they never commit to anything. 

I think it’s crucial for those sitting on the lower side of the spectrum to recognise this. 

Contrary to many a liberal’s belief, success isn’t all down to dumb luck or natural talent (unless you believe that free will is an illusion). Hard work most definitely does pay off. Talent is wasted without it. 

The question is, then, how do we become more conscientious? 

To take a leaf out of the conservative’s book, I think the idea of setting clearly defined boundaries is a good one. Learn to set and follow a schedule. (Punctuality is heavily linked to conscientiousness.) 

When you commit to working, learn to block out the outside world. Focus has much more to do with eliminating distractions than it does to do with applying effort. 

Literally put up a wall by locking yourself in a room. Don’t allowing yourself to check your phone till you’ve finished writing that goddamn blog post about conscientiousness, you open-headed dope!

You know all this, of course. So you also know it’s much easier said than done. A significant part of the problem is not knowing what we want our lives to be about. What we want to make of ourselves. 

So, you want to create a vision for yourself – to have a clearly defined philosophy that helps you to stay on track. 

Warren Buffet recommends the following 3-step process: 

  1. Write down a list of 25 career and/or life goals. 
  2. Circle the five highest. Just five.
  3. Take a hard look at the other 20 and avoid them at all costs. 

It’s also worth asking to what extent these five goals serve a common purpose? The more they’re part of the same value hierarchy, the more focused your passion, the better. 

Ironically, it’s when we define the parameters this way our creativity starts to flourish.

To finish with an analogy, music follows a specific set of rules. They are a limited number of notes one can play. But within those rules, the possible number of melodies are almost infinite. 

Open people need not look at a box as limiting. Defining your own limitations might just be the very thing that sets you free.


This is part of a series of posts on the Big Five Personality Traits. Please find previous post below:

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You can find more of AP2’s writing here at: https://pointlessoverthinking.com

You can also find him on Medium at: https://anxiouspilot2.medium.com

Or on Twitter at: @AnxiousPilot or @PointlessOverT

You can also email him directly at: anxiouspilot2@gmail.com

Extraversion: The Price of Now

What Is Extraversion?

Extraversion breaks down into the following two fundamental aspects: assertiveness and enthusiasm. 

Those high in assertiveness are the take-charge types. The so-called natural-born leaders. The game-changing alphas. (A valuable trait for a pilot, I might add.)

Those high in enthusiasm are talkative and charismatic. They’re the life of the party. The ones who make friends with enviable ease. (Don’t you just love to hate them?)

What drives extroversion is one’s propensity toward feeling positive emotions. In that sense it’s great to be an extrovert. It feels good to feel good.

And it does feel good to take charge. It does feel good to be enthusiastic about stuff. It does feel good to have lots of friends and sex. (So I’m told.)

I am not extroverted by nature, but I try my utmost to wear that hat when I enter the cockpit of an aeroplane. That feeling when you take the autopilot out and really back yourself. There’s nothing like it. (If only I backed myself!)

For the same reason, I try to be more extroverted when I sit down to write. I like to think of AP2 as my alter ego. He pushes the envelope of who it is I think I am.

But there are costs to extraversion.

How Much Should We Value the Present?

Perhaps the biggest danger comes from placing too much emphasis on the present. Sacrificing the future for the sake of a good time. 

Researchers tested this by offering participants a small sum of money now or a larger one later. They found a clear correlation between extraverts placing a higher value on the present.

And this is a good question to ask: how much should we value the present? After all, we may get hit by a bus tomorrow. Or we might live till we’re 101. We simply don’t know.

At any rate, this is an excellent way to think about those who score high in extraversion: Capitalising on the present moment to the maximum extent possible, even if that means sacrificing the future.

To give you an example, I have a friend (Who’d have guessed it!) who is very extraverted. He is well-liked and has many friends as a result. But he is fairly impulsive.

He lost his job once. To clear his head he decided to go on a skiing holiday. Fair enough, you say, but then he went on another skiing holiday just a few weeks later!

Ok, you say, so maybe he can afford it? Perhaps he has a plan? Maybe he has saved well for such an event? (He hadn’t.) So you give him the benefit of the doubt.

But then – I kid you not – as soon as he got back he jumped on another aeroplane and went on another skiing holiday! Of course, it was ski season, and he had many “friends” egging him on.

So he went on three separate skiing holidays within two months of losing his job. Naturally, he rinsed through his savings which put him in a spot of bother.

This is why it pays to be mindful of your nature. Extroversion may feel good, but there are times when one should reign it in. Sometimes you should feel bad.

The optimal state of being is not to feel good all the time but to feel appropriately good or bad given your current circumstances. 

If you feel good all the time, you’re more likely to take risks that you shouldn’t. (There’s a reason you’re given free alcohol at casinos.)

This is something those who suffer from manic episodes do. They feel invincible and go on spending sprees only to wake up the next day with a psychological hang-over realising they’ve spent every dim they had.

You think, “Hey, things are awesome right now, let’s place everything on black!” or, “Things aren’t so bad – one more skiing holiday won’t hurt…”

Evidence has shown that extraverts are more likely to struggle with addiction too. All those jokes about alcoholic pilots. Well, there is some truth to it…

Is Better To Be Introverted or Extroverted?

Now, the lines are blurred, but higher neuroticism correlates more strongly with introversion, which makes sense.

What’s important to stress is that lower neuroticism correlates most heavily with greater subjective well-being, not extraversion. There’s an essential difference between not being happy and feeling bad. 

Most of us are motivated by the avoidance of sufferingnot the pursuit of happinessIt’s just that extraversion is more “positively related to brain processes that associate contexts with reward.”

What I’m trying to say is that introverts are wired differently. So the things that make an introvert content and the strengths they bring to the table are different.

A good question to ask yourself is this: should I try to be more extroverted, or should I play to my introverted strengths?

Of course, it depends.

Introverts are more reserved by nature. They aren’t particularly excitable. They like to wait till all the cards have been dealt before placing any bets. They tend to be better listeners, more thoughtful, and more observant.

They get a lot more from spending time in nature and partaking in reflective activities. They love to sit quietly and read a good book with a nice warm cuppa joe. They value close intimate relationships as opposed to having lots of them.

Working by their lonesome doesn’t bother them so much. On the other hand, they might find a job that requires working with lots of people exhausting. An introvert probably shouldn’t marry an extrovert either. (Just imagine the horror!)

I would also argue that introverts should consciously work on their social skills. They should say yes to drinks on a Friday night every now and then. They should try striking up a conversation with a stranger. They should put their hand up and lend their thoughts.

People actually talk more when they’re happy. Like many things, it works in reverse. Opening up and talking to others will make you happier. It will increase confidence and decrease anxiety.

At the end of the day, we are social creatures living in a social world. This is where extroverts win big. Some of the best human rewards are social in nature.

As the saying goes, it’s not what you know, but who.

This is the major downside to being introverted: missed connections. Constantly putting off a good time for the sake of the future.

But the future isn’t a given. Sometimes a bird in the hand really is worth more than two in the bush.

Just ask my friend, he’ll tell you about this crazy time when he went on three skiing holidays within two months of losing his job.

You really can’t fault the guy for living… can you?

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You can find more of AP2’s writing here at: https://pointlessoverthinking.com

You can also find him on Medium at: https://anxiouspilot2.medium.com

Or on Twitter at: @AnxiousPilot or @PointlessOverT

You can also email him directly at: anxiouspilot2@gmail.com

The Big Five Personality Model: An Empirical Tool for Understanding Yourself

The Story of Personality Theory

Some 80-plus years ago, researchers embarked on one of the longest (and most boring) projects in human psychology. It started with the idea that people are born with different character traits that remain relatively stable throughout one’s lifetime. 

Welcome to the idea of personality. 

To test its validity one researcher – let’s call him researcher number 1 – began by picking up a dictionary and highlighting any word he could find related to human behaviour.

After putting this list together, another researcher – let’s call him researcher number 2 (presumably because number 1 killed himself out of boredom) – took that list and started to categorise these words into, well, categories.

Unfortunately he also killed himself, so another bunch of researchers took over and began the painstaking job of measuring these categories, or traits, on a large number of people over a very long period of time. 

The researchers who managed not to kill themselves (God bless) started narrowing this list down by binning any trait that fluctuated too much – failing to show any signs of stability over time.

Eventually, the list got smaller and smaller until, by the 1960s, they were left with just 5. (Traits, that is, not researchers.) Those were:

  • Openness 
  • Conscientiousness
  • Extraversion
  • Agreeableness 
  • Neuroticism

At this point, researcher number 648 – I believe it was – confidently declared that these five traits can be used to explain all human behaviour. It took another 20 years or so before researchers had the data to back up this bold claim, but it turned out that number 648 was right!

The Big Five, as they are now referred to, “have been found to contain and subsume most personality traits.” They are considered to represent the basic structure of what we call personality.

The data has shown the Big Five are relatively stable over time and that there is a genetic component to it.Where you land on the spectrum of each trait goes a long way to determining who you are, the choices you make, and how well you do in life.

But listen, don’t kill yourself just yet!

An Overview Of The Big Five Personality Traits

The main thing to take from this sad story is that the Big Five traits represent one of the most established and empirically driven measurements in human psychology.

Of course there is some disagreement with the model. Some believe there should a sixth trait while others disagree with the semantics, but, in the main, psychologists agree that the Big Five model captures the human experience well.

In a grossly simplified nutshell, those who are highly extroverted tend to feel more positive emotions and have lots of friends. Highly neurotic people tend to feel more negative emotions. They are more likely to get divorced, lose their job, and be depressed. 

Those high in conscientiousness like to do things to the very best of their ability. They enjoy following schedules and the predictability of routines. Whereas those high in openness are very creative. They love to travel and experience new things.

Finally, those high in agreeableness are kind and compassionate in nature. They love helping and caring for others.

It’s worth reiterating that each trait represents a range between two extremes. So low extraversion would mean you’re introverted. Low neuroticism would mean you’re a zen Buddhist monk. Low agreeableness would mean you’re a bit of ass. 

You get it!

Where you lie on the range of each trait makes up your personality’s basic – underlying – structure. Of course, the variations are vast. And, of course, our personalities are complicated. They do change day to day depending on our mood, environment etc.

This leads the argument that such models are too simplistic – that they will always be prone to error because they can’t capture someone’s personality in its entirety.

Why Should You Use The Big Five Personality Model

To give you an analogy, if I call a tree a tree, it paints a very blurry picture in your mind’s eye. But no two trees are the same. Your idea of a tree is going to be very different from mine. 

So, it’s worth you giving a few details to hang your hat on. Telling you what kind of tree it is, what environment it is best suited to, etc. 

But If I take that too far – if I start describing the detail of every leaf, well, you might want to kill yourself. This is the equivalent of breaking it down to the level of the individual. It’s actually impossible to do for one thing. 

What you want is to slice up the pie to the extent that it provides a practical framework to work with, but not to the point that the details take you away from the bigger – more important – picture.

Now, where that happy medium lies has been the subject of much (painfully dull) debate over the years, with different personality models proposed ranging from over 4000 traits to just 3. 

The big five emerged as the leader from the pack following extensive literature. It is seen as the preferred model by many in psychology today.

What makes it a particularly great tool are the revisions it’s undergone since its inception in the 1990’s breaking it down into a series of correlated facets and sub-facets.

A good way to visualise this is to imagine the big five as the major branches of a tree, with the facets and sub-facets representing the smaller branches and leaves. 

This gives you both a lower and higher resolution picture to work with. Here’s a pretty picture:

Understanding Yourself Using The Big Five Personality Model

Over the following weeks I will write a post about each of the big five traits and the two correlated aspects they break down into. 

I will propose several theories for why they exist and what the personality strengths and weaknesses are (broadly speaking) depending on which side of the spectrum you tilt towards. 

I will offer up some practical advice for helping you work with and strengthen your particular personality hand.

But before I do, it’s worth understanding the particular personalty hand we’ve been dealt in greater detail. So here’s some homework to do before next week’s enthralling lesson.

You can head over to understandmyself.com and take a test that will give you a detailed breakdown of your particular personality make-up based on the Big Five model. 

(You can also do this as a couple and get an additional report that points out your blind spots. Something I can highly recommend.)

I believe it costs 10 USD. (There are free versions of this test available, of course. The only reason I recommend this one is because of the detailed report it gives telling you where you lie on the spectrum of both the Big Five and their correlated aspects, also what that means for you.)

I should say, if you tend to be hyper self-critical, it’s going to skew the results. It’s important to be honest but try to take it when you feel normal. 

Anyway folks, that’s it from me this week.

The main points are:

  • The Big Five represents one of the most established and empirically driven models in human psychology. 
  • It’s considered one of the most reliable personality models in modern psychology. 
  • The Big Five represent the basic underlying structure of one’s personality. Each trait breaks down into correlated aspects that give you a higher resolution picture.
  • You can take a test at understandmyself.com to find out where you land on the spectrum of each trait and what that means for you.
  • It’s best not to kill yourself.

Stay tuned and stay alive – I swear it gets a lot more interesting! 

Next week I will be discussing extraversion. 

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You can find more of AP2’s writing here at: https://pointlessoverthinking.com

You can also find him on Medium at: https://anxiouspilot2.medium.com

Or on Twitter at: @AnxiousPilot or @PointlessOverT

You can also email him directly at: anxiouspilot2@gmail.com