Three Potential Ways to Become More Conscientious
A new report highlights several methods that hold promise.
Posted Feb 27, 2019
What would you call someone who is not impulsive, careless, or aimless? What would you call someone who is dependable, diligent, disciplined, goal-oriented, hardworking, orderly, persistent, prudent, responsible, self-controlled, and well-organized? These adjectives describe a conscientious person.1,2 Conscientiousness is an important concept because it predicts many significant and positive outcomes in life (e.g., better health, relationships, job performance, school outcomes). How can we become more conscientious? That is what researchers from Yale University and Harvard Medical School discuss in an article examined in the January issue of Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment.1
According to the Big Five personality theory, conscientiousness is one of five dimensions of personality—along with extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism, and openness to experience. Conscientiousness is associated with traits such as delay of gratification, ego control, effortful control, self-regulation, grit, and constraint.3
How is conscientiousness measured? Usually along with the other Big Five personality traits. (Tests of conscientiousness are available online.)
How to improve conscientiousness?
Three types of interventions might help improve conscientiousness.1
Behavioral and cognitive interventions
Cognitive and behavioral therapies (including cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT) are present-focused and time-limited approaches that focus on teaching skills needed to solve problems. Many of these treatments require regular homework; for instance, individuals need to keep written track of their thoughts and feelings and practice skills learned in therapy in real-world settings.
Cognitive and behavioral approaches may improve conscientiousness, but their use presents a challenge, one that many other treatments for improving conscientiousness share. Namely, these interventions require discipline, perseverance, and hard work—the very things low-conscientious individuals lack.
For instance, how could people with substance use disorders be expected to participate in such treatments with regularity when intoxication, withdrawal, and time spent attempting to obtain drugs impede what the researchers call “the expression of conscientiousness”?
Nevertheless, research suggests these interventions do improve conscientiousness, even if indirectly. For instance, behavioral techniques like contingency management—reinforcing and rewarding positive changes in behavior (e.g., abstinence from alcohol)—improve conscientiousness and have been helpful in promoting positive change in people with alcohol or substance abuse disorders. In drug-treatment populations, contingency management has been associated with moderate effect sizes (larger for cocaine and opioids than for tobacco).
Goal-related metacognitive techniques
Another group of techniques involves metacognition (knowledge and awareness of one’s own thinking process).
As we all know, pleasant fantasies about the future do not automatically translate to a willingness to put in the effort needed for change. So what can we do? One metacognitive technique helpful with goal setting is called mental contrasting.4 Mental contrasting requires one to imagine a goal, the path to the goal, and potential obstacles along the way. By encouraging one to envision the path to the goal, mental contrasting helps the individual choose more feasible goals and make a greater commitment to these goals.
Another technique is implementation intentions, which involves the creation of concrete contingency plans; these are in the form of “I intend to do X if Y occurs.” For example, “I will do my breathing exercises for five minutes if I feel too anxious before the meeting.”
Episodic future thinking encourages people to try to “pre-experience” their future—to not just think about it but to imagine it vividly in all its realistic details; this is similar to how “episodic memory allows us to re-experience our past.”5
Whichever of these techniques we use, we are asked to ponder the future and make plans. This may help increase our conscientiousness and allow us to move toward our goals—even if the goals and rewards associated with them are far away.
Cognitive remediation therapy
Cognitive remediation is used to enhance an individual’s cognitive processes and functions, such as attention, working memory, and social cognition. It does so by utilizing cognitive exercises and educational video games.
The goal of this intervention, aside from immediate improvement on the trained task, is transfer—meaning to transfer cognitive gains to other related mental tasks, but also to activities of daily living.
Cognitive remediation has not been investigated as a way to improve conscientiousness; however, this treatment has been successfully used to enhance executive functioning in disorders like schizophrenia. Executive functions are top-down cognitive processes and are activated when the use of automatic or instinctive processes is inadequate (e.g., reading a difficult article in a noisy room).6 Given the hypothesized link between executive functions and conscientiousness,7 cognitive remediation might increase conscientiousness by enhancing executive functioning.
Compared to other approaches, such as individual therapy with a health professional, cognitive remediation has several benefits. It is convenient, requires less insight, demands fewer resources, and can be fun (especially with the use of video games).
Concluding thoughts on increasing conscientiousness
As noted earlier, it is difficult to improve conscientiousness in impulsive people through interventions which themselves require conscientiousness (e.g., doing homework, regular practice of skills). Though the interventions we have discussed are likely to be useful, the question is: How can we help individuals persevere and stick with the treatment?
One solution to this problem is using “enhanced support.” Such support may come from family, relatives, friends, a romantic partner, a personal coach, etc. Another solution is to increase the person’s motivation to stick with the intervention. Instead of targeting general conscientiousness, for instance, one may focus on increasing conscientiousness through changing behaviors the individual considers important (e.g., becoming a better parent). Also helpful may be making the intervention fun and enjoyable and using external rewards.
Increasing conscientiousness is not easy. But is it worth the time and effort? To answer this question, here is a short summary of the positive outcomes associated with conscientiousness. Enhanced conscientiousness is linked with behaviors that promote health (e.g., exercise) and protect health (e.g., low drug use). In the relationship domain, conscientious people’s reliability, responsibility, and greater self-control translate to honesty, keeping promises, and returning favors. Consequently, conscientious individuals enjoy higher quality relationships and have lower rates of divorce. Conscientiousness, in education/work domains, has been linked with enhanced performance in school and college, better jobs, more success and satisfaction at work, higher likelihood of promotion, and more money. In short, conscientious people are healthier, have greater relationships, and are more successful.8
1. Javaras, K. N., Williams, M., Baskin-Sommers, A. R. (2019). Psychological interventions potentially useful for increasing conscientiousness. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment, 10, 13–24.
2. Friedman, H. S., & Kern, M. L. (2014). Personality, well-being, and health. Annual Review of Psychology, 65, 719-742.
3. Conti, G., & Heckman, J. J. (2014). Understanding conscientiousness across the life course: An economic perspective. Developmental Psychology, 50, 1451-1459.
4. Oettingen, G., & Reininger, K. M. (2016). The power of prospection: mental contrasting and behavior change. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 10, 591–604.
5. Atance, C. M., & O'Kneill, D. K. (2005). The emergence of episodic future thinking in humans. Learning and Motivation, 36, 126-144.
6. Diamond, A. (2013). Executive functions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64, 135-168.
7. Fleming, K. A., Heintzelman, S. J., & Bartholow, B. D. (2016). Specifying associations between conscientiousness and executive functioning: Mental set shifting, not prepotent response inhibition or working memory updating. Journal of Personality, 84, 348–360.
8. Hill, P. L., & Jackson, J. J. (2016). The invest-and-accrue model of conscientiousness. Review of General Psychology, 20, 141-154.