Life is unfair - but not in the way you think it is. What would that be? Probably the infuriating fact that some people are born more beautiful, rich or intelligent. Needless to say, this is certainly unfair. But there’s another way the eternal imbalance of opportunity manifests itself - one, that is rarely talked about. In fact, it’s so hard to quantify that it goes unnoticed to most people - even though it could be described as the single most important factor in determining whether you will be successful in whatever you choose to do.
This little thing is called conscientiousness.
If you don't know what it is, or why you'd be better off having more of it, you came to the right place.
So, what are we talking about here?
One way to describe conscientiousness is as a personality trait, a dimension of the so-called Big Five. That is, the temperamental quality we associate with being careful, diligent, dutiful, dependable and efficient. This description might evoke a certain image of a person, but that’s not necessarily true to its meaning. We’d (or at least I) expect someone described as conscientious to have a stringent attitude, perhaps with some level of OCD catalysed into their job occupation. Like the grade grubber, eager-beaver teacher’s pet, the overly-orderly librarian, the frigid academic. And while it's true that such characters demand the quality of being conscientious, saying that they are caused by it would blatantly undercut the essence of the word. Conscientiousness doesn’t denote your interests; nor does it make you immune to fun. It’s not the measurement for the length of the stick in someone’s ass, as much as its reputation would let you to believe it is.
Instead, conscientiousness is better framed as an ability; a skill; a talent. As the name suggests, the ability to act on your conscience.
That doesn’t sound like an ability and more like a decision, doesn’t it? Well, that is until we consider that personality is just your likelihood to make certain decisions across time. The probability of which is influenced by a variety of factors, many of which fall under the category of heritable. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's first discuss why listening to your conscience would be such a universally good thing in the first place. I mean, it can't always be right, can it?
To understand conscientiousness and its perks, we first have to understand conscience. In the simplest terms, conscience is the thing that takes the future into account. To be exact, the future you care about happening or not happening.
Conscience is the mental institution that carefully informs your emotional state whether what you’re doing will get you closer towards what you want. It's your moral compass, reminding you on every occasion if your behavior is aligned with your principles and aspirations; your ideal signalling to you whether your actions are conducive to becoming it - or if some course correction would be advisable. For all intents and purposes, that makes it god. How so? Try not listening to it for just long enough, and you’ll slowly approach hell. Do what it tells you, and you’ll grow yourself a little piece of heaven.
This means that no matter which way it is tilted, acting on it means doing what you deem to be a good decision. It has no moral standards, except your own. Of course, since many a human share the same neurological blueprints and thus foundation for what we consider good morals - perhaps leading to the idea of god in the first place - your average highly conscientious person might appear like the walking, conservative trope we discussed in the beginning. (Yes, conscientiousness is assosciated with leaning politically right.) Conversely, this also means that no one “lacks a conscience” - because it is not a universal thing. A psychopath has a conscience as well, just one that doesn’t care for empathy (or in a more general sense, the implication that one's actions might hurt somebody else's feeling). Ironically, the reason we have empathy lies within the benefits of cooperation as much as the disadvantages of making random enemies. The psychopath has thus to outsource empathy to his rationality in order to avoid the evolutionary pitfalls of being an asshole that everybody emphatically wants to be killed. Anyhow.
From a neurological perspective, much of your conscience equals the action happening in the prefrontal cortex: Located between your eyes, it is responsible for every good decision you ever made, and successfully allowed you to identify any irrational one. It is after all, rationality - the behavioral quality resulting from taking as many consequences as possible into account and basing one's decision around the expected outcome. Or, if you're that type of person: Conscience is your third eye, making you perceive a future that hasn't happened yet.
Not by coincidence, this also makes it the thing you rather not listen to when faced with something you want to do, but know won’t do you any good in the long run. And if I had suffered carpal tunnel syndrome while writing this, I would have gone with this much simpler definition of what conscience is: The thing that knows better.
In case you never know better, here are some examples:
It’s probably not a good idea to go out partying when you have an important event scheduled for tomorrow morning. Gambling could work out, but probably won’t. Eating all the Donuts will seem like a good idea for the 5 minutes it takes to put them in your stomach, but will seem much worse for every minute that comes after it. All of these, of course, are just rephrasing of the eternal wisdom contained in the imperative “Don’t put your dick in that.”
Now, did I have to teach you that or did you know it already? Chances are, the latter. Then why didn’t you act like it? What are you? Stupid?
Perhaps. But maybe not. Because knowing better has nothing to do with intelligence. Everyone knows better. You don’t need to be a complete idiot to know something is a bad idea and then do it anyway. Sure, it can help. Sure, intelligent people will be better able to judge whether something is a good or bad idea in the whole scheme of things. But ultimately, the kind of stupid things you do simply don’t demand much critical thought to be identified as such. Rarely has raw intelligence saved someone from acting in a self-destructive manner. Nor has conscience. So what has?
Don’t believe me? Okay, I’ll take the bait.
The Greatest Human Strength
Running the risk of engaging in a tiring psychology trope, I will reference the Stanford marshmallow experiment. As did hundreds of non-fiction books before me. But there’s a reason for its unfading popularity: Like few others social experiments, it highlights the very real difference between knowing better - having a conscience - and the ability to act on it - conscientiousness. For those uninitiated, the following is a description taken from the book “Willpower: Rediscovering Our Greatest Strength” by Roy F. Baumeister & John Tierney:
They [Walter Mischel and his colleagues] were studying how a child learns to resist immediate gratification, and they found a creative new way to observe the process in four-year-old children. They would bring the children one at a time into a room, show them a marshmallow, and offer them a deal before leaving them alone in the room. The children could eat the marshmallow whenever they wanted to, but if they held off until the experimenter returned, they would get a second marshmallow to eat along with it. Some children gobbled the marshmallow right away; others tried resisting but couldn’t hold out; some managed to wait out the whole fifteen minutes for the bigger reward. The ones who succeeded tended to do so by distracting themselves, which seemed an interesting enough finding at the time of the experiments, in the 1960s.
The gist of the matter is this: Eating the marshmallow is bad. Very bad. Every kid knows this, because they are informed that doing so robs them of the ability to eat more of them in the future. And since marshmallows are good, more of them are even better. One simple enough, emotional calculation that every human child can pull off - but only in theory. In practice, not every kid actualizes this knowledge to the same degree.
Please, take a minute to let that sink in: Each of the children was equipped with the same future prospect of gaining a higher reward. They all had their conscience telling them they ought to resist (as evident in their strained attempts to distract themselves), but only a few were capable of doing so. In other words, some kids behaved more conscientiously than others.
Can you see where I’m going with this?
Conscience - while a great function of the human intellect - is not very useful in isolation. Only in conjunction with the capacity to act on it does it get transformed from the obnoxious voice in our heads to the thing that catapulted humanity into the stratosphere of the food chain. Because what separates us from other animals is not only the ability to see into the future, so to speak, but the ability to withstand compulsivity in service of realizing the one we like to live in. This is what’s responsible for our success - it’s the greatest human strength, as Roy Baumeister so fittingly called it.
Conversely, the less our ability to listen to our conscience - aka self-control - works, the more animal-like we become. Proving this is as simple as showing what happens if it stops working. One way to accomplish this is by accidentally ramming an iron rod through it, as happened to Phineas Gage:
The equilibrium or balance, so to speak, between his intellectual faculties and animal propensities, seems to have been destroyed. He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operations, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible. A child in his intellectual capacity and manifestations, he has the animal passions of a strong man. Previous to his injury, although untrained in the schools, he possessed a well-balanced mind, and was looked upon by those who knew him as a shrewd, smart businessman, very energetic and persistent in executing all his plans of operation. In this regard his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was “no longer Gage."
The consequences are nothing short of consequential: Conscientiousness is not only what made humans more successful than other species - it’s what makes some humans more successful than others. A painful fact of life is echoed in the aftermath of the Marshmallow experiment.
(Continuation from Excerpt of "Willpower")
Much later, though, Mischel discovered something else thanks to a stroke of good fortune. His own daughters happened to attend the same school, on the Stanford University campus, where the marshmallow experiments took place. Long after he finished the experiments and moved on to other topics, Mischel kept hearing from his daughters about their classmates. He noticed that the children who had failed to wait for the extra marshmallow seemed to get in more trouble than the others, both in and out of school. To see if there was a pattern, Mischel and his colleagues tracked down hundreds of veterans of the experiments.They found that the ones who had shown the most willpower at age four went on to get better grades and test scores. The children who had managed to hold out the entire fifteen minutes went on to score 210 points higher on the SAT than the ones who had caved after the first half minute. The children with willpower grew up to become more popular with their peers and their teachers. They earned higher salaries. They had a lower body-mass index, suggesting that they were less prone to gain weight as middle age encroached. They were less likely to report having had problems with drug abuse.
Apparently, the same thing that allowed those kids to resist proved beneficial in almost every area of their lives. Now consider that you can repeat this experiment with almost everything where it is required to prioritise the future over the present. We do this all the time, because otherwise we’d take on the aforementioned animal-like behavioural characteristics. And truth be told, almost no one is so bad at it that they are more or less incapacitated to live a normal live. Yet, the same isn’t true when it comes to our optimal life. Many of the things we decide to procrastinate on fall precisely into the category of things that decide upon your success: Working out, eating healthy, studying, keeping promises, and so on. They aren’t vital things - but doing them will ultimately decide over the quality of your life. At the same time, they demand willpower. Otherwise, not doing them wouldn’t so reliably incite a bad conscience.
Also, take a moment to appreciate the choice of the test subjects, within which part of the beauty of the experiment’s design lies: Children are intellectually capable enough to see how delaying the reward is the rational choice, but not enough to make up the kind of conflated rationalizations only a more mature person could come up with. What I mean is this: It’s so easy to think of a reason not to go to the gym, or floss, or go to bed at an appropriate time. But the fact of the matter is that I need one in order to quiet the part of myself telling me to do better. Compared to an adult, the child isn’t as prolific in this act of self-defiance - it’s undeniable that their failure of willpower is just that.
If you can intuit the importance of this ability at all, then I’d wager you’re left with one question: How?
In the beginning, I hinted that conscientiousness consists of a neurological property people possess to differing degrees. But what does that even mean? To try and understand what causes us to make the right decisions, we first have to understand how we make any decision. So let me give you a crash course:
Dopamine, the motivation neurotransmitter, generates a sense of want. Different areas of the brain throw in “bids” of dopamine, so to speak. Your hypothalamus, for example, will likely yell eat this energy-dense object right now. Whichever party throws in the highest will come out victorious. Its price: Deciding what you’ll do next. This puts the prefrontal cortex (the aforementioned neurological equivalent to your conscience) in a bidding war with all these other regions and in turn, making your conscience’ ability to reign over your behavior dependent on how much dopaminergic activity it is able to incite.
The takeaway message is one simple existential truism: Each child was destined to listen to their wants - the only difference is that some of them had more of this neocortical power to spare. Their motivation to listen to their conscience was higher. This means it’s not the inability to refrain from a reward that differentiates the kid - it’s what unites them. It just so happens that for some of them, behaving in a long-term beneficial manner is easier for them. Their brains are balanced just right so that better knowing transforms into better acting.
These are all quite bold claims, I can see that. How can anyone be so arrogant and put the quality of your life on such an isolated part of psychology? There’s gotta be more that goes into the decision. At least that’s what I thought. Until I stumbled upon another interesting finding.
Let me ask you this: If I offered you 10 dollars after reading this article, or 12 a week from now, how would you choose?
Right away you should notice that this is a similar situation as in the marshmallow experiment. While the impulsive, money lusting brain will want to sway you towards the ten dollars in the here and now, your rationality would make the case for the twelve. After all, you wouldn’t have expected ten dollars anyway, so waiting a week will be just as good. Because while ten dollars is not a lot of money - 12 isn’t either. We thus conclude: Waiting is the way to go for the sophisticated mammal.
Yet again, not all of you will. Even though everyone can appreciate the rational train of thought I laid out before. It now stands to reason that if there were a way to increase the bid in the self-control area, you’d make the better decisions - and reap the rewards that come from it. You’d be the same person, with the same conscience, the same knowledge - but better decision making abilities.
Sadly, we cannot yet do thi..Oh wait, we can!
It’s called amphetamine.
Under its influence, you’d be more likely to make the rational decision - to delay the reward. Why is that? Well, I believe that nobody knows exactly. But a sensible theory attributes it to the increase of dopaminergic activity in the neocortical area that stimulants can create. Which would make sense, if we consider that most of the rational thinking takes place there. You could say it puts you into a greater sense of anticipation for your rational plans, allowing them to overpower the more primitive, more impulsive parts. It quite literally exaggerates the personality dimension of conscientiousness by modulating the baseline processes of your brain.
Of course, that’s not all it does - but it’s a useful way to think about it. If you disagree, don’t tell me. Tell the American Psychiatric Association, who endorses giving the stuff to the people who suffer from a lack of activity in this area. People with a mental disorder notoriously correlated with low levels of conscientiousness: ADHD.
Motivated To Focus
If you thought ADHD was characterized more by a lack of paying attention instead of lack of motivation, you’d be correct. Because that’s exactly what a deficit in cortical activity comes down to. Lack of motivation and lack of attention are two sides of the same coin.
This can be easily demonstrated by asking yourself what interesting things do to your behavior, which should result in an answer like this: “Interesting things motivate me to engage with them.” Similar to how things engage you because you find them interesting. Now, why would that be? Because interesting things create a sense of anticipation. They signal that potential is hidden away in them, if you will; something of value. Which is why, often times, you don’t know why you find something interesting, but seemingly can’t look away from it. But just like the word’s original meaning alludes to, you are glued to the thing for a reason: It differs; it stands out. And that’s when the brain goes:
”Better take a closer look, it might be something valuable.”
You quite literally become motivated to pay attention. Consequently, an inability to stay motivated for a task translates into an inability to pay attention. No surprises there, since both are mediated through the same dopaminergic pathways.
The implication is that somebody suffering under the symptoms that ADHD describes - aka low conscientiousness - isn’t as motivated by the potential prospect of a rewarding outcome of their work (like doing an assignment for school). Again, that isn’t to say they aren’t aware that it’s important - or at least, not any less than their fellow classmates. They know they should work on it, but don’t. They are not interested enough to do the work, because they don’t derive as much motivation from the prospect of a reward that lies too far in the future, simply because it is not able to compete with the more rewarding activities in the here and now. In other words: Their prefrontal cortices aren’t able to put in a sufficiently large bid for doing the hard thing.
Amphetamine, Ritalin, Atomoxetine and consortium are all drugs taken in an attempt to lower the threshold of extrinsic stimulation necessary to initiate engagement. They make you more motivated in face of a delayed reward, which is the prerequisite to act with the future in mind. As a byproduct, they make it more fun to listen to your conscience, so to speak. They make you less dependent on a reward, by providing a sense of reward.
This difference in ability to be motivated by something that isn’t really stimulating on it’s own - say, the far-away future - is neatly mirrored in the different kind of games different personalities like to play: The lower you are in trait conscientiousness, the more likely you are to prefer action-shooters. There’s certainly a lot of the stuff that makes games engaging in general, with rapid-fire feedback loops of reward. And what do people high in conscientiousness like to play?
Puzzle games. God damn puzzle games.
Lastly, Zammitto's study found a significant positive relationship between conscientiousness and preference for action-non shooters and puzzle games and a negative relationship between conscientiousness and driving games.
This fact alone suffices in making a greater point about life: In the mind of the conscientious person, the image of a finished puzzle is sufficiently stimulating in order for them to stay engaged. They do the hard work necessary, because the expectation of the finished picture keeps them going through the boring parts. People low in conscientiousness, on the other hand, depend on outside stimulation in order to stay similarly engaged. Sadly, for most people, life is more like a puzzle game and less like an action shooter. And when people decide to play a game, it’s because they are bored with the game of life, making action games the majority of popular products of the medium.
Although, just like everything else, puzzle games become universally beloved with enough amphetamine in your bloodstream. Anyone who ever took some of the pills their frenzied, muddled up college buddy gave them in order to cram for the math exam next knows the astonishing sense of reward a math questions can suddenly evoke. And what are they, if not puzzle games for the most introverted of thinkers? Conscientious people simply complement the graphics with their minds, so to speak. Other ones, like mathematician Paul Erdos, needed amphetamine in order to see anything but "a blank piece of paper" (as he allegedly remarked).
Attention Is The New IQ
A short recap: While we all share the same evolutionary goals, the human genome allows for all kinds of different strategies to accomplish them. This is partly reflected in the variety of personality traits - behavioral tendencies, rooted in subtle differences in neurological architecture. With a multitude of psychological frameworks having been proven effective across our species’ lifetime, the sum of these traits - aka personality - is in large part what accounts for the different approaches to life. Thus, in a way, it makes sense to think of the advantages and disadvantages as somewhat balanced - trade-offs, if you will.
Going with our example from before, this would mean that a conscientious person isn’t as good at shooter games. But that’s not the case. Our environment drastically differs from the one we spend much of our evolutionary history in, which broke the usefulness of some of the functional adaptations we underwent. Remember: Conscientiousness is nothing but the capacity to stick to a goal, induced by being motivated enough by the prospect of achieving a set objective. That sounds unequivocally great, right? That is, until you realise the advantageous nature of impulsiveness, the biological instantiation of “get it while the getting is good”.
As such, it’s more that impulsiveness used to be beneficial back in the days when our personalities stratified. That is to say: The attention-deficient person prefers action focused games not because they’re better in it, but because it’s the only genre providing enough source of positive feedback to become interested and thus good in them. And it’s all due to the modern environment favouring people who can summon the necessary attention to work on things that will take weeks, years or even decades to finish - because only relatively recently did we acquire the luxury of being able to actually work in these time frames without the interruptions of basic, survival-related emergencies.
In fact, this ability to delay gratification is prerequisite to succeed in current times - a phenomenon only becoming more widespread as life gets more complex. The conscientious person is better adapted to capitalize on the current environment, since the world we built is itself a product of conscientious behavior. It’s the Red Queen hypothesis all over again, proposing “that organisms must constantly adapt, evolve, and proliferate not merely to gain reproductive advantage, but also simply to survive while pitted against ever-evolving opposing organisms in a constantly changing environment”.
This basically makes ADHD the societal confession that people higher in conscientiousness have an unfair advantage. It frames normal levels of conscientiousness as a medical problem (The resulting, detrimental pathologization of personality is something I discussed here.) Of course, I am not saying that it doesn’t exist - but that the label of ADHD’s has only one existential justification: to convey the problematic nature of a personality profile that isn't suitable for modern life. This is echoed in the popular notion that video games cause ADHD. They don’t. And while I’m pulling this out of my ass, it really is no sphincter-tearing reasoning I’m applying here. Obviously, people with ADHD (that is, pathologically low levels of conscientiousness) are going to have a harder time resisting the spell of a hyper stimulating activity. But with video games becoming increasingly addictive, more people are going to be unable to resist them.
With that in mind, it’s also no wonder why humans love to self-diagnose with this particular disorder: They recognise that their levels of conscientiousness are lower than the optimum. But since it’s the most conscientious actors who will emerge successfully, this bar gets raised continuously. So, it’s not that your ADHD isn’t “real”. It’s that you are proportionally more likely to feel like you’re suffering from it the higher the demands on your attention become. And since so many things are tempting to be bought by us, we’re not left with much at the end of the day. This is what Cal Newport means when he says that “Attention is the new IQ”: Society doesn’t put intelligence on a pedestal as much, since it’s not a lack of it that keeps most people from rising to their ideals. It's stopped being the limiting factor it used to be. Deliberate attention, aka conscientiousness, is the bottleneck - and the more temptations we invent, the higher value it becomes.
It doesn’t help that society itself has some filtering mechanisms implemented to detect low levels of conscientiousness as early as possible. Without school, who would ever find out they have ADHD? Probably only the most impulsive of people. Which segways me to my next point: While we don’t rate people’s economic worth through their conscientiousness levels directly, we do so indirectly. And everyone gets graded.
Whatever you do, it can be done in a certain manner: Good, bad and every other adjective between those poles of the spectrum. To approximate good means to be particular about the process, to think and plan ahead - to execute every step with careful precision. As a result, it tends to be the most effortful way, with the pay-off for such diligence often being beyond the horizon. That’s not to mention the many sacrifices of momentary pleasure along the way. This is akin to how we are not willing to read the instruction manual in order to save time - we act negligent, because we can’t be bothered.
Of course, the detrimental effects of this tendency are obvious: As soon as something doesn’t work the way we expected it to, we have to return to the dreaded manual we wanted to avoid in the first place, leaving us with a net loss of time. This is in stark contrast to the mind of the conscientious person, a place where being orderly and detail-oriented are pursuits in themselves. Staying as close to these performance vectors as possible is the mission statement of their brains, with the result that qualities like the ones mentioned will manifest themselves in the most generic venues of life. In fact, a mere peak into someone’s dorm room will give you a pretty good idea about their personality. (Not that this would surprise anyone - but it’s always nice when our intuitions get scientifically credited.)
Tip: Try it at home - Shoot some speed up your nostrils and start reorganising your kitchen drawer. A good arrangement will emerge naturally, as the knowledge of an orderly system already exists.
Naturally, the biologically ingrained habit to act according to the plan; to read the instruction manual; and if there is none, to act in a way that never compromises the future for the present - is quite the useful asset for any employer to look out for. But where should they look? In people’s kitchen drawers? No, we've got something better.
One platform where everyone has the chance to show their willingness to excel at tedious and unnecessary tasks is, of course, school. Or any educational institution, for that matter. While behaving conscientious won’t bring you good grades automatically, deciding they are worthy of your time - in other words, expressing enough social conformity - is enough for it to bring them about. That doesn’t exclude the possibility that you’re aware of their superficial nature. It’s not even a matter of the subject matter mattering. All that counts is the conscious or unconscious awareness that the act of temporarily acquiring knowledge is more important than retaining said knowledge. Because of all the things a good grade achieves, it is never permanent retention of the material. Instead, what A’s do is indicating your willingness to engage in the utmost useless exercises of information retainment - a proxy for the aforementioned certain personality profile desired by employers.
This idea is what Bryan Kaplan's book “The Case Against Education” is based around, and it makes a frightening amount of sense.
Waiters and waitresses who went to university do earn more. On the surface, there’s no obvious reason why their degree should denote their value as workers in a field that doesn’t demand any formal education at all. Instead, it is a tell-tale sign that they’re conscientious enough to go through enough misery in light of a very distant goal. You have to be. From a game theoretical standpoint, that’s all the constant one-upping of our education accomplishes: Whatever you do, a grade A schooling history implies that you will do it in a diligent and careful manner. Which in turn, saves any employer a lot of costly trial and error.
Education signals a package of socially desirable strengths. People at the top of their class usually have the trifecta: intelligent, conscientious, and conformist. Humbler students send a weaker but still lucrative signal: they’re sufficiently intelligent, conscientious, and conformist to earn a degree. This doesn’t mean they’re above average in all three. As long as you manage to graduate, though, you’re probably strong in at least one, and woefully deficient in none.
Compressed into a delightful quote:
“The labor market doesn’t pay you for the useless subjects you master; it pays you for the preexisting traits you reveal by mastering them.”
- Bryan Caplan
Go, Help Yourself
At this point, I hope to have established two things:
1. Conscience is important, but useless without being able to act on it.
2. The ability to act on your conscience - conscientiousness - is a biological trait.
Knowing this, it’s easy to see why some people are more successful than others and conversely, why our own life is in the gutters. So, what do we do? We seek help. And it’s here where the “bias”-part comes in. Since we view ourselves as rational actors, it’s easy to see how we inherently assume a lack of knowledge to be the reason why we don’t do what we’re supposed to. (The “knowing better” part of the discipline equation.) The fact that this is rarely the case, though, makes the myriad of self-help literature a source of great irritation for me. And that’s putting it mildly. Here’s what I mean:
In epidemiology - the method used to find the causes of health outcomes and diseases in populations - there’s something called the Healthy User Bias. It’s a form of sampling bias, where the sample of people you take doesn’t consist of an accurate representation of the group you’re sampling from. Say, for instance, people participating in a clinical trial - they are much more likely to do what they’re told by the clinicians conducting the study, since the willingness to partake is also predisposes them to follow the instructions. The fact that this doesn’t reflect the average person can easily screw with the validity of your results.
For example, eaters of red meat are somewhat more likely to get cancer. But since we’ve been told for decades now that red meat is bad for your health, every study investigating this proposed correlation will have an inherent flaw. Because the people who don’t care for their health will likely engage in a lot of perhaps carcinogenic behavior - like smoking and being sedentary. Thus, isolating red meat as the main cause for an increased risk of cancer becomes hard to substantiate. Conversely, not eating red meat can hardly be said to be a health benefit, if all the users who actively avoid its consumption engage in a myriad of other behaviors overrepresented in their demographic - like exercising, lower alcohol consumption and getting more sleep.
The conscientiousness bias has similar implications: It makes sense to ask the successful people for the secret sauce. And since they all agree on what it is, we can be somewhat confident that they are correct. It all comes down to discipline, or some variation of it. Ask any CEO to catch some truisms that flow through their stream of consciousness and they’ll come up with a bunch of things like the following:
"A Year from Now You May Wish You Had Started Today"- Karen Lamb
“The will to win, the desire to succeed, the urge to reach your full potential... these are the keys that will unlock the door to personal excellence.” - Confucius
“Discipline is what you use when you don't want to do something, when you have to force yourself.” - Arnold Schwarzenegger
(And one of my favorites, an author who’s bibliography is rife with similar sayings:)
“Passion comes after you put in the hard work to become excellent at something valuable, not before. In other words, what you do for a living is much less important than how you do it.”- Cal Newport
All that comes to mind when I read those things is duh. A big, fucking duh.
Of course, all these things are true. But knowing them isn’t the cause for your success; it’s an effect. They are projections of a mindset that is biologically tuned to do the hard thing. That isn’t to criticize those people and their likes. It’s to point out that their "advice", their way of looking at something, is, in fact, a skill like intelligence, and not mere knowledge. Perhaps for anyone in possession of it, their expression of it adds a layer of abstract understanding to it; but it certainly won’t for anyone lacking it.
Of course, no one is suggesting that memorizing a book of motivational quotes will get you closer to anything. But then again, most self-help books have a fact-like appearance that makes it seem as if they contain information you’re better off knowing. Which you are - but again, that was never the problem in the first place. Knowing doesn’t entail the necessary behavior - and that is what you’re after when you’re buying them. Otherwise, you would probably never have gotten into a situation where you’d felt the need for them.
But I’ve got sympathy for all the readers of those books: It’s just so god-damn easy to think that successful people know something that you don’t - and thus you look for information. The ugly, discouraging truth though, is something else: You already know everything, so just do it. Easier said than done, right? All the while, the authors of those cancerous books get away with it, because it’s never their fault - it’s your fault for believing that there is an easy solution. That's a truth that doesn't sell quite so well. Sometimes, there is - but the practical knowledge this would require on the author's part is the antithesis to the incentive to write a self-help book, which is sheer awareness that you can capitalize on people’s “New Year’s Resolution” mindset.
Ultimately, the insights of your average self-help book are merely after-the-fact observations about the benefits of disciplined behavior; a posteriori rationalizations for why a successful person’s behavior worked. They are correct, but won’t work in a person who lacks the qualities that would make them realize these things in the first place. They operate in a different psychological framework. It’s like telling somebody really depressed that the world is beautiful - a happy person can tell you a million reasons why this is true, but all of them are just projections of a well-working brain. Most people come to this realization themselves when they take some ecstasy - only to dismiss their insight as drug-induced naiveté once suicide Tuesday arrives (which, of course, will be just as much tainted by an altered neurochemistry). Similarly, I can guarantee you that amphetamine will make you come up with a bunch of motivational quotes. You’ll have the feeling that you really get what they’re saying.
Sadly, this visceral understanding will only be active during the drugs window of action. Afterwards, your reality will slowly creep up again. And while the logical knowledge will remain, it was there in the first place - just not to be accessed by a mind lacking in sufficient conscientiousness. Does that make you naive? No. At least not more than the highly conscientious person, who tragically never gets the chance to see life from the other perspective.
Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not criticising Arnold for his remarks on what makes you successful. All I’m saying is that willpower is a muscle, and steroids anabolic.
The Surprising Number of Not-So-Eccentric Billionaires
People high in conscientiousness see the world differently. The advice they give you is not a method. It’s a way of seeing the world. Something that has more to do with your dioptres than where you look. Their “strategies” cannot be applied on any old guy and expected to be working, because they’re fundamentally different behavioral types at play. To make this as clear as I can, let me give you one more example:
Have you ever wondered why billionaires don’t behave in the way you would if you had that obscene amount of money?
I surely did. Many times over. Until I realized something. One of the main reasons they got their money is exactly that: Because they don’t do the things I would do.
It’s essentially the same situation as looking at people who can seemingly eat as much as they want without getting fat. You’d think that with such an extraordinary gift, happily indulging in all the unhealthy stuff would be on their daily agenda. They might even think of themselves as doing it - yet when you see them eating for once, it’s not awe that you feel for their immunity fat-gain. Instead, it’s rage, caused by their apparent ill-definition of indulgence. For them, two slices of pizza is a lot. Yeah, how about two pizzas? That’s more like it.
The reason this happens is not because they are lying in an attempt to feign genetic superiority (although I like to think that). It’s because what they desire differs enough in quality and quantity that their behavior is surprising to you. In other words: The reason they are so thin isn’t because they do the same things you do without suffering the same consequences; it’s because they don’t want to do them them - thus reaping the benefits that come from abstaining to eat pounds of junk food. Our understanding of eating a lot differs because our standards of behavior differ - which again, are fundamentally rooted in neurological and endocrinological differences.
Similarly, a large part of what affords billionaires their wealth is their character. What predisposes them not to spend the rest of their days with coke and hookers is in large part responsible for the life circumstances in which they could. It’s what the average person would do - and average, they are not. It would be foolish to assume that the single differentiator between them and the average person is money - yet we do so automatically when we try to put ourselves in their shoes. The reason they don’t do what we do is because if they would, they would be the average person. Which also deprives them of all the financial perks that come from sitting at the tail end of the normal distribution.
Don’t believe me? Ask yourself how much you agree with the following statements. The number in the parenthesis indicates how well it correlates with trait conscientiousness.
- Discussed sexual matters with a male friend (−.23)
- Lounged around my house without any clothes on (−.22)
- Picked up a hitch-hiker (−.21)
- Read a tabloid paper (−.19)
- Drove or rode in a car without a seatbelt (−.19)
- Swore around other people (−.18)
- Spent an hour at a time daydreaming (−.18)
- Shopped at a second-hand thrift shop (−.18)
- Told a dirty joke (−.18)
- Listened to music (+.18)
I guess that’s a permanent ban from the millionaire’s club for me. Because if I know one thing, then it’s that with a billion dollars, I’d never wear clothes at my house - why would I start to? Daydreaming would still be one of my main time sinks. But than again, maybe I could finally stop fantasising about telling dirty sex jokes on TV and start doing it. Cursing would also take on a new dimension: I wouldn’t have to worry anymore about calling a policeman a filfthy SOB because he fined me for not wearing a seatbelt. I mean, I could afford it. And if nothing else, it will get a laugh out of me once I read about it in the Daily Mail.
Now, you might have got a little angry with me here: Isn't all of this reminiscent of your typical rock star/actor? It is. And as you might can conjure up, it’s not their conscientious behavior that got them where they are. The predominant traits that got them where they are are less about conscientiousness and more about openness and extraversion. Which makes it unsurprising that they often lose their money the same way lottery winners lose it, getting addicted to drugs and buying islands.
Intelligence, beauty, and in many cases, money, are things you either have at your disposal or you don’t. They make life easier, in so far as they allow you to defend yourself from the existential pain that's coming for you sooner or later. Conscientiousness, on the other hand, is the weapon that makes you able to go into the offense with it: It is the antidote to most of life’s struggles. For if the uniquely bad deck of cards you were dealt with is the mountain, conscientiousness is the ability to climb it and come down at the other end. While a smaller mountain would be nice, being conscientious is necessary to accomplish even the smallest act of discipline and self control. At the same time, it’s also what allows for the tackling of the most difficult challenges. It can compensate for deficits - as opposed to the traits we normally regard as being worthy of our envy.
The unfinished novel, the ever elongating to-do list, the unanswered messages. All the things are ready to be resolved. It’s you who isn’t. And the way it shows is that you still haven't done them, even though the negative consequences pile up. All due to not being able to channel the same amount of motivation from the future as somebody else might.
This makes the differing levels of conscientiousness people exhibit are an under-appreciated injustice. We put our moral failures on ourselves, since we view self-control as a choice - and there’s no denying that it’s us who’s making the decisions. At the same time, the fact that we know what we should do and avoid doing makes it difficult to view our lack of self-control as anything but a moral failure. We can’t put the blame on somebody other than ourselves, because we knew what we were doing - and the bad outcome that would ensue if we proceeded. This creates the illusion of a level playing field, while in actuality, it is perhaps the easiest way to show that it’s nothing of the kind:
Say you wanted to avoid the pitfalls of a bad diet. That’s one large mountain, to be sure. You see a donut and know you shouldn’t eat it, but you do it anyway. For years on end. You come to identify with the decisions you made - which is only natural. After all, carrying the knowledge all around you how many unnecessary stupid things you’ve done is painful, and so rationalizing it becomes the default. However: You can be the exact same person, just with the volume knob for conscientiousness turned up a little, and you’d refrain. In both cases, you assume this to be your character - but in the first instance you’ll end up as an obese person incapable of fitting through the front door, while in the other, you’ll define yourself as the fit athlete. Now, who would you rather be?
Conscientiousness is the reason why two people with the same amount of raw, cognitive power can differ immensely in terms of success in their lives. With all things equal, it is the deciding factor when it comes to reaching your ambitions, as well as taming your vices. The scope of its inequality inducing properties is frighteningly large, yet rarely gets mentioned outside of the safe, cryptographic confines of an academic context. Sadly, that’s not really surprising: For one, I don’t think the people conducting related studies understand what a lack of conscientiousness even means. They are scientists. Being conscientious is what gets them there in the first place. Furthermore, their immediate environment doesn’t point to a disciplined mindset as anything but the normal state.
Neither does it help that we assume that other people see things the same way we do. Not because that would be a reasonable thing to assume - but because we can talk about the same stuff without noticing how our perception might differ. It’s the age-old enigma of qualia: Your red might look different than mine - but we can talk about it without ever knowing whether they look the same. And so it is with self-control - arguably an even more abstract concept.
Because if your red would look different from my red, and we switched gears, everything would stay the same. We could accept the fact that green might look like red to you, because it wouldn’t really change the way we act. But if controlling your impulses would be as hard for you as it is to a gambling addict…you would lose your livelihood just as quickly. That is one weird thought grapple with, since the concept of you gets lost in translation. After all, you are someone who wouldn’t be impulsive enough to get into such a situation.
You know better.
But so does the alcoholic, obese, gambling addict.
And nobody believes him, not even himself.