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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