Hard working, diligent, studious, ethical, meticulous, punctual, dutiful. They are all words which describe a certain type of person.
A person who, from reading those words, you might think is a little bit boring. Not much fun. Even a bit annoying.
But what they really are is conscientious.
And that’s a good thing.
Don’t force fit me.
You probably most often hear the word conscientiousness when people are talking about someone’s “personality”. That sense that we are all defined by a predestined character profile. Written even before we were born. Dictating how we are meant to behave in each situation we come across.
And whilst there are lots of psychological theories and useful tools for personality typing (think Myers-Briggs) which tap into the natural human propensity for wanting to categorize items into groups, in reality, you can’t classify (or force fit) someone into one particular personality subgroup or another.
It is just not that straightforward. Human nature is just too rich. The brain just too complex.
Make your own destiny.
Because our personality isn’t a fixed entity. It changes throughout our lifetime depending on the environment we live in. The people close to us. The opportunities and challenges that life throws at us.
And although everyone has a basic personality framework that is coded into their genes, differences in upbringing and life experiences can rub off on us differently. Allowing different personalities to shine through. Different faces of the same you.
What’s more, because of this brain plasticity, you can potentially rewire yourself to become the person you want to be. To become a bit more conscientious. Or a bit less. That is what human adaptability is all about.
What does a conscientious brain look like?
One of the difficulties with using neuroscience to measure someone’s “personality” is that there are so many variants of any one personality type that you need a huge pool of people to do the research justice. But classically, neuroscience studies only test a handful of people each time.
And although that is now changing to some degree, what it means is that scientists don’t fully understand what “being conscientious” looks like at the level of the brain.
But there are starting to be a few hints. For example, one recent brain imaging study of 550 people focused on the “white matter” parts of the brain – in other words, the strength of the wiring connections between brain regions, rather than the activity within cells in a particular “grey matter” region. The researchers showed that conscientiousness was associated with greater activity in a neural tract called the uncinate fasciculus, a pathway implicated in emotional regulation which connects together the “limbic” part of the brain (e.g. your amygdala and hippocampus) with a region at the front of your brain called the orbitofrontal cortex.
This suggests that being able to regulate yourself and your emotions more effectively is one of the factors which drives a conscientious person to act the way they do.
An Elixir for Life?
And there are also other avenues of research into conscientiousness which are also proving fruitful.
Over the past couple of years health scientists, investigating factors for disease prevention and improved life expectancy, have become increasingly aware of a pattern emerging across the populations that they have studied.
Namely, that conscientiousness is good for your health. It helps prevent disease. It helps you live longer.
And this isn’t evidenced from just one or two studies, or with small groups of people. There are now lots of studies, across large groups of people, which are showing support for this correlation.
Traditionally people thought that socioeconomic status was one of the key determinants of good health versus poor health. But scientists have shown that conscientiousness is just as important. Something not to be ignored. Something even to be capitalized upon.
Because what this data is showing is that people who are more conscientious – in other words, they score highly on the types of behaviours like those listed at the start of this article which are classed under the title of “conscientiousness” – generally live longer.
They have a lower chance of suffering from high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, diabetes and accidental death, to name a few. No one could deny that this is an impressive list.
But what do all these health issues, diseases and disorders have in common? And what has conscientiousness got to do with it?
Harnessing your conscientious spirit.
Well, conscientiousness starts when you are a child. And in essence, it is all about self-control. Keeping yourself in check.
It is the side of you which stops you taking part in potentially risky behaviours which might negatively affect your health. Alcohol and drug use. Dangerous driving. Smoking. Violence. That kind of thing.
And it promotes behaviours which are good for your health. Healthy eating. Exercise. An ability to cope with stress. Good social relationships even.
And this all adds up, as you might expect, to being healthier and living longer.
If only you could buy it in a bottle.
But it doesn’t stop there. We already know that conscientiousness is one of the most reliable predictors of how someone will perform in the workplace. Boosting their income. Augmenting their career attainment.
In other words, if you could market a bottle filled with “conscientiousness”, people would be queueing down the street to get their hands on it.
And so it makes sense that policymakers are now trying to harness the power of conscientiousness. A mechanism for supporting healthy aging in the population.
Because once you realise that personality isn’t fixed. That is can be changed. Then the concept of training people to become more conscientious is not so far fetched.
And although conscientiousness will never be the brain equivalent of the fountain of youth. Not quite a full-proof way of ensuring good health. It will at least go some way in helping to reduce the burden of ill-health that so often hinders the enjoyment of growing older.
I’ll toast to that.