The Paradox of Conscientious Prisoners

Could imprisonment increase conscientious traits?

Posted Dec 27, 2016

People who become criminals tend to have certain personality traits that predispose them to antisocial behaviour. Specifically, criminals tend to be lower than most people in agreeableness (sympathy for others) and conscientiousness (self-control). Therefore, it is puzzling that a recent study found that prisoners who had been convicted of serious crimes tended to be higher in conscientiousness than the average person. The reasons for this are unclear. Perhaps there is something about the prison environment that fosters conscientious behaviour, even in criminals? Perhaps some personality traits are more responsive to the environment than is often thought.

Source: Wikipedia

Many studies suggest that people who engage in antisocial behaviour, including crime, tend to be distinguished by personality traits, such as poor impulse control and hostility, that facilitate disregard for social norms. In terms of the well-known big five model, antisocial behaviour is most strongly associated with low agreeableness and conscientiousness. Low agreeableness is associated with lack of sympathy for others and disregard for moral rules, whereas low conscientiousness is associated with dislike of following rules, lack of self-discipline, and acting on impulse without considering the likely consequences. All the big five consist of broad features of personality that subsume a number of more specific traits, and in one model each of the big five consists of six narrower facets. (See here for a full list.) Research indicates that antisocial behaviour is associated with low levels of all facets of agreeableness and of conscientiousness (Jones, Miller, & Lynam, 2011). Worth noting is that some of the facets are more strongly related to antisocial behaviour than others. In terms of the six conscientiousness facets, the two that are the most strongly associated with antisocial behaviour are low deliberation (acting rashly rather than planning ahead) and low dutifulness (disregard for rules and obligations), while the other facets, particularly orderliness (keeping things tidy and following routines), have weaker associations.

Surprisingly, therefore, a recent study found that prisoners in Sweden were higher in conscientiousness than ordinary people (Eriksson, Masche-No, & Dåderman, 2017). This seems rather puzzling, as these were inmates of high security prisons who had been convicted of serious crimes and were serving sentences between one year and life. Hence, one might expect them to be lower in conscientiousness than most people, yet this was not the case, which raises some intriguing questions.

The authors of the study reported findings from two samples of prisoners. The first sample consisted of men only, while the second consisted of inmates of both sexes. For the first sample, inmates were assessed on their overall big five traits, and compared first to norms for the Swedish general population, and then to a sample of university students, as well as a sample of prison guards. Both tests found that while prisoners were lower in agreeableness and extraversion than non-prisoners, they were also substantially higher in conscientiousness than the general population and the students. However, prison guards and inmates scored equally highly on conscientiousness. The second sample of prisoners were assessed on the six facets of conscientiousness, to allow a more detailed analysis. Prisoners were compared to a control group consisting of people recruited through a university website, as well as to norms for the Swedish general population. The prisoners scored higher than the control group on the facets of order and self-discipline, although they scored lower on dutifulness, and did not differ on the other three facets of competence, achievement striving, and deliberation.

The authors suggested that because the prison environment is very strict in terms of regulations and norms of expected behaviour, this may encourage prisoners to develop conscientious behaviours to avoid punishment from guards and reprisals from fellow inmates (Eriksson et al., 2017). In particular, orderliness and self-discipline might be the facets of conscientiousness most relevant to prison life. For example, prisoners who leave their belongings lying around or who shirk their duties might face negative consequences that prompt them to be more careful in these regards. What this implies is that while people who become criminals are usually predisposed to be low in all aspects of conscientiousness, once they are incarcerated they may adjust to the demands of prison life by becoming more conscientious, at least in some aspects of their behaviour. Of course, as this was a correlational study, it is only possible to speculate about why these results occurred, and whether prison has a causal effect on inmates’ personalities has not been confirmed. However, it is an interesting conjecture that is worth considering further.

Wikimedia commons
Source: Wikimedia commons

If it is true that being in prison can affect inmates’ conscientiousness, then it seems that some facets of conscientiousness were more affected than others. Specifically, prisoners were higher than controls in orderliness and self-discipline, facets that are somewhat less important for criminality than the other conscientiousness facets. Interestingly, inmates were lower than controls in dutifulness, which is more in line with what one would expect from convicted criminals. However, they did not differ from the general population or students in deliberation, which is still contrary to what one would expect, considering that this is one of the more important traits in predicting antisocial behaviour. Perhaps, this means that prison is more effective in shaping conscientiousness traits that are more weakly associated with criminality, such as orderliness, and has less impact on those that are more strongly associated with criminality.

In a previous post, I noted that surveys have found that people in poorer countries tend to be more conscientious than those in wealthier countries. This is sometimes considered a paradox, in that at an individual level conscientiousness is associated with better health, longevity, and higher income, yet at national and regional levels, higher average conscientiousness is associated with poverty and shorter life expectancy. I discussed the idea that conscientiousness might be most adaptive in harsh environments where survival is difficult. Perhaps prisoners experience something similar, in that they are forced to adapt in ways that are odds with their natural predilections.

There has been considerable debate about how much personality can change in adulthood and what effect the environment might have on personality traits (Ardelt, 2000). On the one hand, there is strong evidence that personality is substantially influenced by genetic factors (Polderman et al., 2015) and that, in general, personality tends to be fairly stable throughout adult life (Ferguson, 2010). On the other hand, there is some evidence that personality traits may change in response to major life events (Ormel, Riese, & Rosmalen, 2012), and that people may even be able to deliberately change their traits to a modest degree (Hudson & Fraley, 2015).

One theory of personality suggests that people have a set point for particular traits that is genetically determined, yet they also have the capacity to deviate from this set point in response to life events (Ormel et al., 2012). For example, a person’s level of neuroticism may rise or fall in response to adverse or positive life events respectively, yet in the long-term their overall level of neuroticism tends to be stable. All things being equal, people tend to return to their set point, but it is possible for people to depart from the set point in the long-term given sufficient motivation and the right environmental influences. Perhaps, this explains why prisoners have such unexpectedly high conscientiousness scores. Their genetic set point might be quite low, but they can still adapt when confined to a strict and demanding environment. However, upon release, it seems likely that ex-prisoners would return to their natural set point, once the demands of prison life are relaxed and they are free to act more naturally. On the other hand, perhaps they might have learned self-discipline and might make an enduring change in their way of life? Further studies would be needed to resolve this. If the findings from the prisoner study are generally true, it suggests that people’s personality traits might be considerably more flexible, at least in some respects, than is generally assumed.

© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided.  

Previous posts about conscientiousness

Resolving the “Conscientiousness Paradox” - the world's most conscientious nations are some of the world's poorest

Personality, Intelligence And "Race Realism"


Presidio Modelo, island prison in Cuba

Prisoners in Saint-Cyprien,  Felix Nussbaum, 1942


Ardelt, M. (2000). Still stable after all these years? Personality stability theory revisited. Social Psychology Quarterly, 63(4), 392-405. doi:10.2307/2695848

Eriksson, T. G., Masche-No, J. G., & Dåderman, A. M. (2017). Personality traits of prisoners as compared to general populations: Signs of adjustment to the situation? Personality and Individual Differences, 107, 237-245. doi:

Ferguson, C. J. (2010). A meta-analysis of normal and disordered personality across the life span. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(4), 659-667. doi:10.1037/a0018770

Hudson, N. W., & Fraley, R. C. (2015). Volitional personality trait change: Can people choose to change their personality traits? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 109(3), 490-507. doi:10.1037/pspp0000021

Jones, S. E., Miller, J. D., & Lynam, D. R. (2011). Personality, antisocial behavior, and aggression: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Criminal Justice, 39(4), 329-337. doi:

Ormel, J., Riese, H., & Rosmalen, J. (2012). Interpreting neuroticism scores across the adult life course: Immutable or experience-dependent set points of negative affect? Clinical Psychology Review, 32(1), 71 - 79.

Polderman, T. J. C., Benyamin, B., de Leeuw, C. A., Sullivan, P. F., van Bochoven, A., Visscher, P. M., & Posthuma, D. (2015). Meta-analysis of the heritability of human traits based on fifty years of twin studies. Nature Genetics, 47(7), 702-709. doi:10.1038/ng.3285 

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