Factors of conscientiousness

As I mentioned before, there are a number of definitions of conscientiousness floating around. This can be confusing, especially when reading blogs by nutjobs who might use the word according to both MBTI and Cooijmans definitions in the same post, without saying they’re doing it.

Different definitions of the trait all require “adherence or conformity to something over time”: Adherence to the law, adherence to a long-term plan, adherence to social expectations, etc. Because it is “over time”, it is not a passing fancy, but rather a mental habit- deviation from which causes anxiety. The proper definition has two parts, “governed by or conforming to the dictates of conscience”, and “meticulous, careful”. The first one gives us a rough etymology (adherence + conscience) and the second gives us a general “stickiness” trait (that of a person whose mental habits become more fixed over time). This latter definition is what the MBTI and Big 5 are mostly measuring.

So let’s look at some more specific types of adherence:

1. Adherence to social expectations. This is the sort of person who drives five mph over the speed limit because “that’s what everybody does”. The more clever ones will post-facto rationalize that it’s dangerous not to go with the flow of traffic (the truth in this is negligible). We see immediately that this is the most common type of conscientiousness, which shows us the importance of culture and cultural warfare. It is also the least useful to a genius, and may be narrowing and counterproductive even at average levels of expression.

2. Adherence to ideas and concepts. This is the sort of person who drives at the speed limit or a bit lower. Such a person, in the position of a juror or a judge, would decide according to the law as written, rather than the way he feels the law should be (in general or in the particular case). This is vanishingly rare in the modern day, although a strong contingent still exists among libertarians and other aspies. In the modern world, whose laws are full of contradictions or are otherwise practically impossible to fulfill perfectly, this will predispose a person to neuroses.

3. Adherence to a desire requiring a long-term effort and planning. Such a person will continue working even when desire ebbs, either because they can reinvigorate the desire through visualization or because they understand at some level that the desire still exists at a subconscious level, and that it requires consistent diligence to be realized. This is an effective summary of Cooijmans’ longer definition. It is nearly interchangeable with the economics term low time preference. However, it must be understood that in this context it is a psychological predisposition, and not a rational action of homo economicus, although both produce the same effect. This is the sort of person who, resolving to get in shape, will go to the gym consistently and not intermittently.

A comment here: Bruce Charlton’s definition as the ability to continue working in the absence of motivation (coined to describe the selection mechanism of modern universities) may appear to be similar to definition 3, but in reality it is much more related to definition 1. There is a subtle (but important) difference between motivation that has ebbed temporarily, and motivation that is entirely missing. A college student (usually) does not turn in homework consistently because they think “I have planned ahead of time to get a thorough grounding in this subject, and if I do my homework consistently I will be more proficient in my profession”, but rather because they want to get better grades and avoid the social stigma of failing out. There is admittedly the possibility of some foresight, in that some high-tech employers are impressed by good grades. That said, we find that college students are mostly motivated by the potential anxiety of failing to conform to social expectations, wherefore I categorize them under the first definition.

4. High willpower, or adherence to the ego. This is pretty well-described by Cooijmans’ subheading ego-strength (sic). There seems to be a small number of people who have what can only be described a surplus of general-purpose willpower. This is a highly adaptable trait because willpower may be spent freely, rather than parceled out or conserved on a case-by-case basis. Therefore, any action may be decided on the spot and pursued absent consideration of psychological costs, such as burnout. Such a person has seemingly inexhaustible supplies of both biological and mental energy, and may tend to impatience with inferior people. If they do not have a thorough understanding of their personal ethical system, they will probably be psychotic a la Eysenck.

5. Adherence to the conscience. This is the proper definition, but not the way modern, materialist psychologists tend to use the world, because they consider the conscience to be a quaint, credulous artifact of evolutionary psychology. They may even be right about that, but we must at least recognize this as the primary denotation of the word “conscientiousness”. This presupposes the existence of a conscience, the person’s consistent connection to it, and some amount of ego strength for action. I suppose it’s necessary to add (for slower folks) that this is not the same as adherence to momentary emotions, because the conscience will often require us to do things we don’t like. People may hide their emotions behind protestations of conscience (as when conscientious objectors are, in actuality, cowards), but this doesn’t prove that emotions and conscience are the same thing.

Maybe there are more than this. I’m making them up as I think of them. Responses to comments soon. I’m a little behind on stuff because I’m trying a new diet, and so far it kinda sucks. But I have to stabilize on it, else the experiment will have been for naught.


About Aeoli Pera

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4 Responses to Factors of conscientiousness

  1. slenkar says:

    I can’t do the gym thing regularly but I can spend hours trying to solve a problem. No matter how frustrating it is.

  2. Aeoli Pera says:

    >Get a backpack and put everything in it you might need. Take it with you everywhere.

    As of now, I carry a laptop, notebook, pens, pad of stickynotes, and my smartphone. The 1.0 OS only requires the notebook (and sticky notes help).

    >Process and procedure are the two main things that help with conscientiousness. Make to do lists for a bare minimum a week in advance and stick with them. Roll anything over to the next day that does not get completed

    Entrenched habits and well-defined processes are what make this sort of OCD lifestyle possible. I agree entirely, and always recommend Cal Newport’s system as a starter.

    >Only problem is that when you start planning stuff a week or more out, you realize how unconscientious 90%+ of the population is.

    I found this out very quickly after starting to implement systematic habits and planning.

    >I suspect Aeoli you dont have a conscientious problem, but rather a problem of having too much you enjoy doing; i.e. you probably don’t procrastinate, but are just being productive on one thing rather than another.

    A little from column A, a little from column B. The biggest problem for me was physical energy- a bad diet left me in the same binge/catch-up cycle as 80% of the population. There’s also the high associative horizon thing- as you said, I have a lot of potential activities on my radar, and I’ve had to inculcate a realistic idea of what I can accomplish. Last, but not least, it’s been impossible so far to completely exclude willpower. I don’t adhere to my systems quite so perfectly as I’d like.

  3. Pingback: Disambiguating conscientiousness: responsibility vs. dedication | Aeoli Pera

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