Two Hidden Traits Found in High Achievers

Curiosity and industriousness are two traits found in highly successful people.

Posted Nov 13, 2020

Source: Pickpik

What does it take to be a high achieving individual? A mix of grit, smarts, vision, and balance, perhaps.

New research forthcoming in the journal Personality and Individual Differences takes a different view on this long-standing question.

“The two factors within the five-factor model of personality most frequently associated with [...] achievement are conscientiousness and openness,” state the authors of the research, led by Thomas Gatzka of the University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland (FHNW). “Whereas conscientiousness encompasses numerous traits with relevance for learning success, such as achievement striving, diligence, and self-discipline, openness has been linked to academically advantageous qualities such as curiosity, independent-mindedness, and educational aptitude.”

But they didn't stop there. The researchers looked deeper into the Big Five model of personality to understand which traits were predictive of high achievement. 

Specifically, they found that the sub-traits of intellectual openness and industrious were most likely to be seen in high achieving individuals.

To make sense of the findings, it is necessary to dive into the sub-components of openness and conscientiousness. According to other research, openness and conscientiousness are composed of two dimensions. For openness, the dimensions are:

  • Senso-aesthetic openness: The preference for sensory and perceptual exploration and immersion in art, creativity, and imagination
  • Intellectual openness: The preference for intellectual stimulation, scholastic pursuits, and cognitive stimulation

For conscientiousness, the sub-dimensions are:

  • Orderliness: The preference for routines, deliberation, and detail-orientation
  • Industriousness: The tendency to stay focused and to pursue goals in a determined way

The latter two components—intellectual openness and industriousness—were indicative of high achievement in Gatzka’s research. Interestingly, the sub-traits of senso-aesthetic openness and orderliness are associated with slightly lower levels of achievement.

To arrive at this result, Gatzka and his team administered a series of personality tests to 424 Swiss undergraduate students. The students were asked to provide their current GPA and to complete the Subjective Academic Achievement Scale where they rated their agreement with statements such as “My grades are appropriate for my effort” and “I progress adequately fast in my studies.”

They found that individuals with higher GPAs were more likely to express intellectual openness, but not senso-aesthetic openness. They state, “There were noticeable differences between the two openness aspects. While intellectual openness correlated with GPA and subjective achievement, senso-aesthetic openness did not.”

A similar pattern was found for conscientious—industriousness correlated with GPA and subjective academic achievement but orderliness did not.

This research has some important implications. For one, it provides a road map for those interested in improving their academic and career performance. Regardless of how naturally curious or goal-oriented someone may be, acting in ways that increase one's intellectual curiosity and industriousness is likely to lead to more academic and career success. 

It also helps settle an ongoing debate regarding the relationship between openness and achievement. "Although openness has been associated with academic achievement since the very emergence of the five-factor model of personality, most studies have yielded rather disappointing results so far," say the researchers. "The present study corroborated the notion that the low association between overall openness and academic achievement stems from the opposing effects of the two aspects, namely intellectual and senso-aesthetic openness."

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Gatzka, T. Aspects of openness as predictors of academic achievement. Personality and Individual Differences, 170, 110422.