Resolving the “Conscientiousness Paradox”
The world's most conscientious nations are also some of the poorest
Posted Jul 27, 2015
Conscientiousness, one of the Big Five personality traits, is generally considered highly desirable. In individuals, high levels of conscientiousness are associated with health, well-being, and productivity. One might therefore be tempted to assume that countries with high average levels of conscientiousness would enjoy high levels of societal health and prosperity, as a country is the sum of the people who inhabit it. However, one would be wrong. 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” and to suggest that between-country comparisons of conscientiousness are not valid. On the other hand, some have argued that it would be naïve to expect that country level associations would always correspond with individual level ones. In fact it might be that conscientiousness is more adaptive in countries with harsher living conditions than in ones where life is more comfortable.
Conscientiousness is a broad dimension of personality that encompasses a person’s predisposition to control their behavior in socially acceptable ways (Roberts, Jackson, Fayard, Edmonds, & Meints, 2009). Hence, people high on conscientiousness tend to be self-disciplined, think before they act, are goal-directed and follow socially prescribed rules and norms. People who are low in conscientiousness tend to be more spontaneous and impulsive, undisciplined, disorderly and non-conforming, yet may also be more creative as they do not feel as bound by convention. Higher conscientiousness tends to be associated with better health, greater satisfaction with life, academic and occupational success, as well as less substance use and criminal behavior. Most people would regard these outcomes as highly desirable. However, the desirability of certain other correlates of conscientiousness is more subjective depending on one’s own values. For example, conscientiousness tends to be associated with social conservatism, being conventionally religious, and to a lesser extent with authoritarian attitudes (Gerber, Huber, Doherty, Dowling, & Ha, 2010; Saroglou, 2010; Sibley & Duckitt, 2008). Additionally, people high in conscientiousness tend to place great value on security, conformity, following tradition, and obedience to authority, and are more likely to support the death penalty and restricting civil liberties in the name of security (Kandola & Egan, 2014; Swami et al., 2012; Vecchione, Alessandri, Barbaranelli, & Caprara, 2011). Conscientious people tend to have demanding standards of behavior, hence they may tend to have harsh and intolerant attitudes to those who do not adhere to these same standards.
As I discussed in my previous post, variations in political, economic, social, and health factors have been related to variations in personality traits and to variations across geographical regions. Hence, some researchers have begun to investigate whether geographic differences in the distribution of personality traits are related to these same outcomes. A review of cross-national studies of Big Five personality traits by Meisenberg (2015) found that some of the correlations between national personality traits and outcome indicators were similar to those found at the individual level, while others were not. For example, extraversion was positively correlated with average national levels of happiness and life satisfaction, and there were trends for openness to experience to be positively correlated with national IQ levels. These correlations are similar to those seen in individuals. On the other hand, there were trends associating conscientiousness with lower gross domestic product, less political freedom, lower national IQ, and higher homicide rates. Another study using additional data found that national conscientiousness was not only associated with lower GDP, but also associated with lower levels of human development, lower life expectancy, less economic freedom, and with less democratic/more authoritarian political regimes, although most of these latter correlations were reduced when taking GDP into account (Mõttus, Allik, & Realo, 2010). Interestingly, less conscientious nations had higher rates of atheism and of alcohol consumption, which is more in line with individual-level findings.
Some scholars have argued that these counter-intuitive findings for conscientiousness indicate that it is not valid to compare different nations on their self-reported levels of conscientiousness. Two main arguments have been put forward to support this. Firstly, it has been argued that when people rate their own personality traits they compare themselves against local community standards. This is known as the reference group effect. So if someone lives in a community where most people have very high standards of conscientious behavior, they may tend to give themselves more modest ratings compared to someone living in a community with more lax standards. To illustrate, Japan has been found to have about the lowest levels of self-reported conscientiousness of any nation in several studies (Mõttus, Allik, Realo, Pullmann, et al., 2012; Schmitt, Allik, McCrae, & Benet-Martínez, 2007), even though Japanese culture is noted for being highly industrious. The Japanese language even has a word “Karōshi” which means “death from overwork” (Schmitt, et al., 2007). Perhaps then, people in Japan commonly feel that they do not measure up to their culture’s highly demanding standards of achievement and self-discipline.
Although the reference group effect sounds like it might be a good explanation, in practice there is a lack of evidence to support it. One study attempted to test for the existence of the reference group effect by comparing responses to vignettes in 21 different countries (Mõttus, Allik, Realo, Pullmann, et al., 2012). Participants were asked to read a series of scenarios describing a person with varying levels of different types of conscientious behavior and then to rate the person described in terms of how competent, self-disciplined, orderly and so on they were, depending on the particular vignette. They also provided self-ratings of their own conscientiousness. If it were true that people from different cultures used different standards to rate conscientiousness then this would be reflected in their ratings of the vignettes, as the same ones were used in all 21 countries. However, the vignettes were rated similarly across all 21 cultures. Higher levels of conscientiousness were rated as high everywhere, lower levels were rates as low everywhere. Hence, people from different cultures appeared to have very similar understandings of what makes for conscientious behavior. Furthermore, correcting for differences in the supposed reference group effect had very little effect on cross-country rankings of self-rated conscientiousness. Therefore, there was a lack of evidence in this study that culture-specific standards could explain the apparently counter-intuitive relationship between national-level conscientiousness scores and important objective outcomes such as life expectancy and GDP.
The other main argument against the validity of cross-cultural comparisons of conscientiousness is that there are cultural differences in response styles to personality questionnaires. In some cultures, extreme responding, that is the tendency to give exaggerated responses to survey questions, is fairly common, while other cultures are more given to avoiding extreme responses. Since conscientiousness is a socially desirable trait, the presence of extreme responding will result in inflated conscientiousness scores. Less extreme responding is associated with higher economic development and is known to be more common in East Asian nations such as Japan, while more extreme responding is associated with lower economic development and is more prevalent in African and South Asian nations. This might reflect societal development (e.g. better education) and possibly differences in dialectical thinking (i.e. acceptance of change and contradiction, awareness that the same person can show both high and low levels of a given trait) (Mõttus, Allik, Realo, Rossier, et al., 2012). Hence, extreme responding might explain why less developed nations score higher in conscientiousness than more developed ones such as Japan and South Korea where modest responding is normative. In another study, using a similar vignette method, researchers were able to compare and adjust for differences in response styles across 20 different countries (Mõttus, Allik, Realo, Rossier, et al., 2012). In this case, response style was correlated with self-reported conscientiousness scores. Adjusting for response style did affect country rankings in conscientiousness to some extent. For example, after adjusting their scores, Japan and South Korea went from lowest and second lowest in conscientiousness to fourth and ninth lowest respectively. However, while correcting for response style partially reduced the negative correlations between national level conscientiousness and GDP and life expectancy respectively it did not eliminate them. What this suggests is that cross-cultural differences in response style can explain part of the counter-intuitive relationship between national-level conscientiousness scores and important objective outcomes such as life expectancy and GDP, but cannot explain all of it.
Since it appears that the “conscientiousness paradox” is not entirely explicable in terms of cultural biases in responding, it would be interesting to consider more substantive reasons why this so-called paradox might occur. Some scholars have argued that the character of the individuals who make up a society determines the character of that society (e.g. Lynn & Vanhanen, 2002, cited in Stolarski, Zajenkowski, & Meisenberg, 2013). However, other scholars have argued that this may be a naïve view based on unsubstantiated theoretical generalizations that fail to take into account alternative possibilties (Mõttus, Allik, & Realo, 2010). Meisenberg (2015) has argued that it seems unlikely that the prevalence of highly conscientious individuals causes a nation to be less economically productive, and that it seems more likely that a society’s level of development influences personality rather than the other way around. For instance, individuals tend to have little or no control over large-scale societal and environmental factors that shape a nation’s living conditions. It might therefore be the case that certain personality traits, such as conscientiousness, are more adaptive under some societal conditions than others. Of course, the exact nature of the relationship personality and culture is still not well understood, so any conclusions we can draw need to remain tentative.
As discussed earlier, at the individual level, conscientiousness is associated with valuing security, conformity and tradition. Adherence to such values might be more adaptive under harsh living circumstances than more comfortable and prosperous ones. According to research from the World Values Survey, a country’s level of economic development is related to its societal values. These values range along two dimensions: survival versus self-expression values, and traditional versus secular-rational values. Survival values stress economic and physical security, while self-expression values focus on more liberal-democratic concerns, such as environmental protection, minority rights, and political participation. Traditional values emphasise religion, family, obedience to authority, and nationalism whereas secular-rational values are more focused on individual autonomy and choice. A country may have any combination of these values, but there is a broad trend for countries to move from survival and traditional values to self-expression and secular-rational values as their level of development increases. As discussed earlier, conscientiousness at the individual level tends to be associated with valuing both security and traditionalism as well as religiousness. Highly conscientious people tend to be particularly willing to obey authority and follow rules, so therefore they are a better fit to living in poor countries that tend to be traditionally religious and to have authoritarian political regimes compared to more rebellious, non-conforming people. On the other hand, the personality trait openness to experience is associated with liberal political values, non-conformity and being less religious. Hence people high in openness to experience might be better adapted to living conditions in modernised secular societies that encourage personal freedom.
If it is true that high conscientiousness is more adaptive in less developed countries while high openness to experience is more adaptive in more prosperous countries, then this may have implications for the idea that different nations employ different life history strategies depending on their level of development. According to life history theory, both individuals and whole populations tend to vary along a continuum of traits associated with health and vitality (Dunkel, Cabeza De Baca, Woodley, & Fernandes, 2014). Under harsh conditions where life expectancy is short, a fast life history strategy involving more intensive reproductive effort is preferable, whereas under kinder conditions that allow a longer life expectancy, a slow life history, involving less intensive reproduction is preferred and human development tends to flourish. Some versions of this theory propose that life history strategies are associated with a general factor of personality that combines all of the Big Five in a socially desirable way. Hence, a slow life history is supposed to be associated with higher levels of extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness to experience and emotional stability (i.e. the reverse of neuroticism) while the fast history strategy is associated with lower levels of all these traits. (However, for a different view, see my previous article discussing life history strategy in more detail.) As discussed in my post about regional differences in personality, an attempt has been made to apply a general factor of personality to national level traits (Dunkel, Stolarski, van der Linden, & Fernandes, 2014). Based on self-report data, the rather striking result of this was a factor combining high levels of extraversion, openness to experience and neuroticism, and low levels of agreeableness and conscientiousness. As I noted, this is in contrast to a proposed individual level GFP which involves a combination of high agreeableness and conscientiousness and low neuroticism. It is possible that this unusual pattern might be a statistical artefact of the data samples, which might be resolved with more and better data. On the other hand, this pattern does seem to suggest that at the national scale high levels of some Big Five traits are associated with lower levels of other traits, rather than there being a universal pattern in which all the traits vary along a socially desirable axis. More specifically, high conscientiousness tends to be associated with low openness to experience, and vice versa, which parallels the fact that they are associated with conflicting societal and personal values.
What the evidence reviewed so far suggests is that even though higher levels of extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness to experience and emotional stability are considered socially desirable, not all socially desirable traits are associated with societal health. Although conscientiousness is generally beneficial for individuals, at the societal level conscientiousness may be most adaptive in harsh environments and less adaptive in more prosperous ones. As I have argued elsewhere, personality may have evolved like a patchwork of interacting parts and there is probably not one “best” set of traits that is generally adaptive, and this may apply at the level of nations as well as individuals.
© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided.
Other Posts about related topics
The General Factor of Personality
Personality’s Big One Revisited: The Allure of the Dark Side - critiques life history theory
Personality, Intelligence and “Race Realism” – discusses conscientiousness specifically
The relationship between traits and values
Geographical variation in personality
Regional Differences in Personality: Surprising Findings - The Big Five in America and the UK
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