Conscientiousness: the Alpha Trait? (And How You Can Improve Yours)

Clinically Reviewed by Steven Melendy, PsyD. on August 24, 2015

Conscientiousness is one of the five personality traits described in the Big Five model of personality psychology. It's used to describe a person's tendency to be organized and goal-oriented.

Someone with a high degree of conscientiousness is self-disciplined, efficient, orderly and methodical. They place a lot of importance on getting stuff done - and getting it done properly. They turn up on time, meet deadlines and follow the rules.

It's hardly the most tantalizing trait in the pack.

Yet research suggests that your conscientiousness score is the single biggest predictor of success. It influences everything from grades at school to your chances of becoming addicted to drugs.

Conscientiousness, unplugged

According to the Big Five theory, there are five basic traits or dimensions that serve as the building blocks of personality. The five traits are specified by the helpful anagram OCEAN:

O - Openness to experience (your level of curiosity)

C - Conscientiousness (your level of work ethic)

E - Extraversion (your level of sociability)

A - Agreeableness (your level of kindness)

N - Neuroticism (your level of anxiety or shame).

Each of the Big Five dimensions can be broken down into six sub-traits. Here, we are concerned with conscientiousness which is made up of:

  • Self-efficacy (your ability to accomplish tasks)
  • Orderliness (your ability to organize)
  • Dutifulness (your sense of duty and obligation)
  • Achievement-striving (your commitment to achieving excellence)
  • Self-discipline (your level of willpower)
  • Cautiousness (your ability to think through possibilities before acting)

People scoring high on these individual sub-traits, and on conscientiousness in general, may be described as hard working, organized and tenacious. They persevere amid setbacks. They have grit. And because they possess these qualities, we can predict that they will accomplish their personal and professional goals.

Why conscientiousness is a big deal

All personality theories are founded on the framework that no one personality trait is better than any other. Yet there's a staggering amount of research linking conscientiousness with success:

  • In 2009, a study entitled "Personality and Career Success: Concurrent and Longitudinal Relations" found that people scoring a high degree of conscientiousness on the Big Five test earned considerably higher incomes and reported greater job satisfaction.
  • A National Institute of Mental Health Study found that conscientious men earned significantly higher salaries than their low-C counterparts.
  • A 2006 study reported in the Journal of Applied Psychology linked conscientiousness with entrepreneurship, finding that successful entrepreneurs scored far higher on conscientiousness than managers.
  • Research from the University of Sheffield in the UK is one of the many studies that link conscientiousness with high educational attainment. Simply put, conscientious kids do well at school.
  • Other studies associate conscientiousness with long life , as conscientious people are far less likely to smoke, drink to excess, abuse drugs, drive too fast or break the law. They are also drawn to other conscientious people, which puts them in long-lasting stable relationships and healthy work situations.
  • Conscientiousness even determines your chances of becoming an influential presence on Twitter, according to a University of Cambridge study.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about conscientiousness is its ability to cut across situational variables. Arriving on time, being on top of deadlines, making plans and sticking to them - these skills help you regardless of your life stage or work situation.

What if you rate low for conscientiousness?

In the words of biological anthropologist Helen Fisher , we are not puppets on a string of DNA. Your behaviors, and even your personality profile, can change and evolve over time. For example, most jobs will demand that you act in an organized and goal-oriented manner. Through repeated practice, these skills can become learned and instinctive.

Initially, you may feel like you are acting out of character. But most people can flex the conscientiousness muscle by taking incremental steps, such as keeping a tidy desk, sticking to a daily work plan or making an effort to be punctual. As the evidence suggests, your career, your relationships and your health will thank you for it.

Molly Owens

Molly Owens is the founder and CEO of Truity. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and holds a master's degree in counseling psychology. She began working with personality assessments in 2006, and in 2012 founded Truity with the goal of making robust, scientifically validated assessments more accessible and user-friendly.

Molly is an ENTP and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she enjoys elaborate cooking projects, murder mysteries, and exploring with her husband and son.

More from this author...
About the Clinical Reviewer

Steven Melendy, PsyD., is a Clinical Psychologist who received his doctorate from The Wright Institute in Berkeley, California. He specializes in using evidence-based approaches in his work with individuals and groups. Steve has worked with diverse populations and in variety of a settings, from community clinics to SF General Hospital. He believes strongly in the importance of self-care, good friendships, and humor whenever possible.


Harsh Bhargava (not verified) says...

Hi Molly,

A major nationwide survey conducted under the aegis of the highly regarded Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in India, found that conscientiousness is the most important trait for competitiveness (read success) mindset. Your article points to similar conclusion.  

The next phase of the project is to identify simple and easy to implement steps that can be taken in educational institutions and elsewhere to raise conscientiousness. Can you suggest any based on your research?  Thanks so much.  Harsh

Harsh Bhargava (President, Bankworld Inc.)


Yassine (not verified) says...

I think competitiveness is more linked to agreablness than conscientiousness.


Want to hear your opinion

Kyle Lullo (not verified) says...

If you're going to write an article that's basically about how important X personality type is in a given area, you need to do a bit more than just say oh everything goes amazingly well for people who are high in trait X, but you're not totally screwed if you're low in trait X. Like, yeah, maybe, but didn't you think I'd maybe want some information on how to improve trait X? You know the one trait that you literally just spent a whole article describing how important it is. I've just taken the Big 5 test and I was below average in contentiousness and its fairly fucking depressing to read about how important it is, without any tangible means of what to do next. Book? Podcast? Therapy? Jesus man give me something to work with, I'll bite.

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Myers-Briggs® and MBTI® are registered trademarks of the MBTI Trust, Inc., which has no affiliation with this site. Truity offers a free personality test based on Myers and Briggs' types, but does not offer the official MBTI® assessment. For more information on the Myers Briggs Type Indicator® assessment, please go here .

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