The conscientiousness conundrum

If there is one personality in the Big 5 personality test you would almost certainly like to have it’s Conscientiousness, with a capital C. Why? Because people with this trait tend to

To cut a long story short, they have better life outcomes. Unfortunately, I, like about 50% of all people, am not among them and I was a bit disappointed when I read my test results, which were otherwise not too bad (high in agreeableness and openness). I should have known, anyway. My desk is perennially messy and there are always some specks of leftovers on my plate, which I didn’t care to eat up, whereas my wife’s (who is highly conscientious) looks like it has just come out of the dishwasher after each meal.

So, what does it mean to be low on conscientiousness apart from struggling with your mess, are there any advantages? At first glance not really:

  • Lower income
  • Higher risk of ending up in prison
  • Higher risk of suffering from a mental disorder like depression or anxiety
  • Higher risk of divorce and a host of other adverse life outcomes

For everyone only faintly familiar with evolutionary psychology there is a glaring conundrum: why the heck aren’t we all highly conscientious and why did evolution not weed out our faulty low-conscientiousness genes? Not only is conscientiousness correlated with what is usually defined as “success” in our society, but also negatively correlated with the personality trait Neuroticism, which is associated with so many negative outcomes such as almost all mental disorders and high divorce rates . It almost looks like life gambles, you got a 50% chance to be among the lucky winners. Of course, this doesn’t make any sense at all from an evolutionary point of view.

There is an even weirder twist to the story:

Research comparing countries on personality traits has largely found that countries with high average levels of conscientiousness tend to be poorer, less democratic, and to have lower life expectancy compared to their less conscientious counterparts. This has led some scholars to think that there is a “ conscientiousness paradox” […] ()

How could this be possible? A trait that seems only advantageous in our society might actually be less advantageous in different societies? Here actually lies the key to understanding the conscientiousness conundrum. I have argued before that conscientiousness, which correlates with a good work ethic, planning and time management skills, focus on routine work and political conservatism arose with the advent of farming and is, therefore, a typical “farmer trait”, whereas hunter-gatherers and herders are typically less conscientious.

Early farmers had a much more regulated life (sedentary, same foods, same mealtimes, etc.) than the latter, who needed to be much more flexible, spontaneous and open to new life circumstances. Indeed, high conscientiousness is negatively correlated with high openness. High openness, in turn, is correlated with slightly higher intelligence and higher creativity, which were necessary for hunter-gatherers and herders to survive.

Countries with high conscientiousness (dominated by farmer types) are therefore high in productivity whereas countries high in openness (dominated by hunter-gatherer and herd types) are therefore less high in productivity, but higher in innovation. It should therefore not be surprising that places in which hunter-gatherer types are rare or absent are poorer and less democratic (hunter-gatherers are egalitarian, farmer types are more status-conscious).

Of course, a lot of people would be of mixed types nowadays, but farmer types would be thriving, not only in terms of financial success but also in terms of evolutionary success (i.e. having more offspring), due to their work ethic, competitiveness and last but not least also due to the innovation by hunter-gatherer types. However, the more a society become competitive the more hunter-gatherer types would start to struggle due to mental illnesses like depression, anxiety and autism, and start to diminish.

There is actual empirical research to back this claim up: Markus Jokela (2012) has found in a study that since the availability of modern contraception “Higher levels of openness to experience in both sexes[… ]were associated with lower fertility […]”. This process of disappearance of openness might have happened many times in history already, wherever a highly innovative culture suddenly lost its innovative edge. Ancient Greece and the Easter Islands might be examples. Japan might be a more contemporary example.

Originally published at on June 28, 2020.