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The Dark Side of Conscientiousness: Life Satisfaction in the Face of Unemployment

Can being highly conscientious ever be a liability?

Phrenology image of headA soon-to-be-published longitudinal study of 9,570 individuals revealed that conscientiousness has a dark side following unemployment. This is one of the first instances of research documenting that conscientiousness is not always good for well-being.

Christopher J. Boyce (University of Warwick), Alex M. Wood (University of Manchester), and Gordon D.A. Brown (University of Warwick) completed a study that is about to be published in the Journal of Research in Personality. It caught my attention because of the title, which I borrowed for my blog entry, "The Dark Side of Conscientiousness."

How could conscientiousness have a dark side? Ok, any personality trait can be detrimental if taken to an extreme. In fact, that is what some psychologists argue is the basis for a personality disorder. Perhaps this is what these authors meant, I thought. The dark side of conscientiousness could be a compulsive personality disorder of some type. No, this isn't it at all.

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What could be wrong with people who are organized, dutiful, and self-disciplined? These are people who tend to set higher goals, have high levels of motivation, achieve highly and have higher levels of well-being. Every study I have read indicates that they are great employees, and most importantly, from my perspective, is that these people tend to procrastinate less.

The authors of this study think that it's misleading to construe conscientiousness as having only positive consequences for well-being. In fact, given the strong motivational and achievement orientation involved in this personality disposition, they hypothesized that it may be a liability under failure conditions. Unemployment is a perfect example of failure of this sort, and certainly a relevant topic in the current economic and labor situation (they note, for example, that the 2009 unemployment rate of 9.3% has not been seen since 1983).

Certainly unemployment has been demonstrated to have a strong causal effect on negative mental health outcomes (e.g., depression). Loss of employment involves loss of earnings as well as the potential for loss of purpose and even self-worth. Interestingly, conscientious people also accumulate more wealth and this affects their well-being positively. Blocking the goal of wealth accumulation represents another potential route whereby conscientiousness may be personally detrimental in the face of unemployment.

Their study
As part of the German Socio-Economic Panel Study, a large sample (4514 males and 5056 females, ages and incomes ranging widely) participated in face-to-face interviews annually for 4 years (2005-2008). In 2005, all participants were employed. Over the years, unemployment was coded to represent the length of time each participants was unemployed (up to a maximum of 3 years). Of course, conscientiousness (i.e., does a thorough job, not lazy, effective and efficient) was measured in year one and used prospectively in the analyses of the effects on life-satisfaction ("How satisfied are you with your life, all things considered?").

Results
The authors conducted a multilevel analysis to predict life satisfaction at 1, 2 or 3 years of unemployment. After statistically controlling for pre-unemployment levels of conscientiousness and life satisfaction, the results indicated that becoming unemployed had a negative effect on life satisfaction (no surprises here). However, the magnitude of the drop in life satisfaction after unemployment depended on the pre-employment level of conscientiousness. By the third year of unemployment, the gap between low and high pre-unemployment conscientiousness individuals was highest. Those high in conscientiousness showed the largest drop in life satisfaction. As the authors note, "The effect in the third year is particularly strong; suggesting that during prolonged unemployment highly conscientious people experience 120% higher decreases in life satisfaction than those at low levels" (p. 9).

Interestingly, the decline in life satisfaction of conscientious individuals does not occur because highly conscientious people have further to fall. And, the data suggest that people with low levels of pre-unemployment conscientiousness may even begin to adapt to unemployment.

Concluding thoughts
This is an interesting study as it helps us see how our traits, like everything in life it seems, have a "double edge" - they cut both ways. Although conscientiousness has been seen to be primarily positive, there is this "dark side" as the authors note. In the case of conscientiousness, the authors suggest a number of possible mechanisms for the negative effects on life satisfaction after prolonged unemployment for those individual who are high in conscientiousness. These include: 1) failure as more threatening because achievement is a more central life goal; 2) blocking the goal of wealth accumulation; 3) loss of a central part of identity with job loss; and 4) the possibility that highly conscientious people will attribute job loss to lack of ability (as opposed to effort or macro-economic issues). Unfortunately, the interview nature of this study did not permit an investigation into the mechanisms involved.

The bottom line, and concluding comments of the authors, is this: "Conscientious individuals are a risk group psychologically during unemployment and these individuals may benefit the most from extra support during unemployment" (p. 12).

I wonder if the same may be true of highly conscientious individuals who procrastinate (and we all procrastinate at different times in our lives). I wonder if the effects on well-being are stronger? Do highly conscientious people who procrastinate feel more guilt, frustration, anger with self? What do you think? I know it will be the topic of a future thesis in my research group. Until then, please let me know what experience has taught you.

Reference
Boyce, C.J., Wood, A.M., Brown, G.D.A., The Dark Side of Conscientiousness: Conscientious People Experience Greater Drops in Life Satisfaction Following Unemployment, Journal of Research in Personality (2010), doi: 10.1016/j.jrp.2010.05.001

Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, where he specializes in the study of procrastination.

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