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Conscientiousness: A 'Big Five' Personality Trait

What is conscientiousness and how does this 'Big Five' personality trait affect people's behavior?

Conscientiousness: A 'Big Five' Personality Trait

Conscientiousness is the personality trait of a person who shows an awareness of the impact that their own behavior has on those around them. Conscientious people are generally more goal-oriented in their motives, ambitious in their academic efforts and at work, and feel more comfortable when they are well-prepared and organized.

Big Five Personality Traits

The trait is one of the ‘Big Five’ factors psychologists use to evaluate an individual’s personality.

Research in recent decades has a number of significant differences between the personalities and life outcomes of people who are conscientiousness, and those who are considered to be unconscientious.

According to a study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, individuals with higher levels of the trait tend to be more empathetic towards other people (Melchers et al, 2016).

A previous study, led by psychologist Howard Friedman, even found a correlation between conscientiousness and life expectancy. Participants who demonstrated higher levels of conscientious as children were observed to enjoy longer lifespans than other subjects (Friedman et al, 1993).

What is Conscientiousness?

Conscientiousness involves being mindful of those around you, from friends and family, to colleagues and even strangers. A conscientious person will be conscious of the first impression that they make on others when they are introduced to new people, for instance.

They also feel a sense of duty towards others. They are aware of the effect that their words and actions can have on people in everyday situations.

Conscientious people will therefore take care not to inadvertently offend or upset others by either their words or actions.

As a result of their careful behavior, conscientious people have been found to be less likely to be involved in driving accidents than those with less conscientious personality traits (Arthur and Graziano, 1996).

A person who is conscientious is most at ease when they feel that they are organized. They prefer their surroundings - their bedroom, desk or office - to be tidy and presentable.

Their organized tendencies also extend to other areas of life: a conscientious person will often be careful to be reliable, and to be on time for important meetings and appointments. They are keen to keep to their schedule, often maintaining a diary and making plans for the future, as well as budgeting for events well ahead of time.

Goal-Oriented Behavior

The behavior of conscientious people is often driven by their personal goals. They use their own initiative to set goals, and then concentrate their energy towards achieving them.

This can translate into higher ambitions - in academia at school, striving to achieve target grades - and in finding their desired career later in life.

In order to achieve their goals, a conscientious person will be willing to be hard-working, devoting much of their attention and energy towards a specific aspiration. They are more willing to persevere through difficult circumstances, and may assume the reputation amongst colleagues of being a ‘workaholic’.

Whilst tiring, this goal-oriented behavior can pay high rewards. For example, in a University of Iowa study of the performance of salespeople, a study found that conscientious employees achieved a higher volume of sales than their unconscientious co-workers (Barrick et al, 1993).  

Conscientiousness also leads people to care about the potential consequences of their actions. They prefer to deliberate over the options available to them rather than making impulsive decisions. A conscientious person may be slower at making choices, but he or she will be more confident that the decision that they have made was correct.

Low Conscientiousness

As with other personality factors, conscientiousness is measured on a continuum, ranging from low, moderate to high levels of the trait. People who are unconscientious tend to be more disorganized. People with low levels of conscientiousness trait also tend to engage in impulsive behavior.

Instead of thinking through an action to its conclusion, an unconscientious person may act spontaneously. For instance, where conscientious people would weigh up the benefits and costs of buying a new car, an unconscientious person who likes a car may go ahead and purchase it, but regret their action as they find themselves in debt later on.

Unconscientious people are often more relaxed about time-keeping - their unpunctuality can leave them late for work or missing important appointments. They also display less goal-oriented behavior and are less driven to succeed than their conscientious counterparts.


Conscientiousness is a ‘Big Five’ factor of personality, along with other broad factors - openness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. These factors follow the lexical approach to personality, which proposes that people naturally create terms for common traits so that they can describe and discuss them.

Since the mid-20th Century, psychologists have attempted to understand personality differences using with reference to these personality traits.

In 1936, Gordon Allport and Henry Odbert proposed an inventory of around 4,500 terms, derived from Webster’s New International Dictionary, describing various personality traits.

Subsequent attempts have been made to produce more concise, workable trait inventories. Psychologist Raymond Cattell produced the Sixteen Personality Factor Questionnaire (16PF) in the 1940s, whilst Hans and Sybil Eysenck developed the PEN model of personality, which measured 3 key traits.

In recent years, these five factors, which include conscientiousness, have become a benchmark for assessing personality differences.

The factors have been used in a number of models of personality, including Lewis Goldberg’s Big Five, and Robert McCrae and Paul Costa’s Five Factor Model. Each of the five factors covers a broad array of facets - traits describing more specific aspects of personality.

Conscientiousness is commonly assessed using self-report questionnaires. A person taking the questionnaire is asked to rate the extent to which a number of statement or terms describe his or her personality.

Inventories of such questions, which are used to measure conscientiousness and other factors, include Costa and McCrae’s Revised NEO Personality Inventory (NEO PI-R) and the International Personality Item Pool (McCrae and Costa, 1987).

What Factors Influence Conscientiousness?

Both biological and environmental differences have been found between conscientious people and those exhibiting lower levels of the trait.

Personality psychologists Robert McCrae and Paul Costa, who have lead research into the Five Factor model of personality, found that the interactions children have with their parents or caregivers can affect personality traits later in life.

They surveyed a sample of adults, measuring key personality traits along with their memories of their parents’ behavior when they were younger.

The researchers found that children whose parents were affectionate towards them tended to score higher on conscientiousness than participants whose parents were more distant (McCrae and Costa, 1988).

However, further research has suggested a biological basis for some personality traits, including conscientiousness.

A study of the Big Five personality traits amongst monozygotic and dizygotic twins in Vancouver, Canada found that conscientiousness may be, to some degree, inherited through the genes of our parents (Jang et al, 1996).

MRI scans have also identified a link between brain structure and conscientiousness. A study published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience in 2017 found that the brains of participants who were more conscientious had a “thicker cortex and smaller area and folding in prefrontal regions” (Riccelli et al, 2017; license).

Yet, conscientiousness does not necessarily remain constant. The extent to which we experience it can vary through our lives.

According to what psychologists term the ‘maturity principle’, traits such as conscientiousness tend to increase as we grow older. Aside from a slight decrease between early and mid-adolescence, we grow more conscientious with age (Van den Akker, 2014).

  1. Melchers, M. C., Li, M., Haas, B. W., Reuter, M., Bischoff, L. and Montag, C. (2016). Similar Personality Patterns Are Associated with Empathy in Four Different Countries. Frontiers in Psychology. Retrieved from
  2. Friedman, H. S., Tucker, J. S., Tomlinson-Keasey, C., Schwartz, J. E., Wingard, D. L. and Criqui, M. H. (1993). Does Childhood Personality Predict Longevity? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 65(1). 176-185.
  3. Arthur, W. and Graziano, W. G. (1996). The five-factor model, conscientiousness, and driving accident involvement. Journal of Personality. 64(3). 593-618.
  4. Barrick, M. R., Mount, M. K. and Strauss, J. P. (1993). Conscientiousness and Performance of Sales Representatives: Test of the Mediating Effects of Goal Setting. Journal of Applied Psychology. 78(5). 715-722.
  5. McCrae, R. R. and Costa, P. T. (1987). Validation of the Five-Factor Model of Personality Across Instruments and Observers. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 52(1). 81-90.
  6. McCrae, R. R. and Costa, P. T. (1988). Recalled Parent-Child Relations and Adult Personality. Journal of Personality. 56(2). 417-434.
  7. Jang, K. L., Livesley, W. J. and Vernon, P. A. (1996). Heritability of the Big Five Personality Dimensions and Their Facets: A Twin Study. Journal of Personality. 64(3).
  8. Riccelli, R., Toschi, N., Nigro, S., Terracciano, A. and Passamonti, L. (2017). Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. 2017 nsw175. Retrieved from License:
  9. Van den Akker, A. L., Deković, M., Asscher, J. and Prinzie, P. (2014). Mean-Level Personality Development Across Childhood and Adolescence: A Temporary Defiance of the Maturity Principle and Bidirectional Associations With Parenting. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 107(4). 736-750.
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