Are some traits more useful than others?

Do some traits, therefore, result in some people being able to bounce back better than others? In other words, are some traits more useful than others? To answer this question I think we first need to ask a supplementary question: useful for what? Extraversion has been linked to career success (De Vries & Rentfrow, 2016), but only in respect to higher salaries, so we need to be clear about how we categorise success. Many occupations within health and social care don't command particularly high salaries, regardless of the training they entail (the majority of nurses in the UK are now university graduates, but their salaries are lower than that of, for example, engineering graduates). In addition, potential earnings are much higher in some professions, such as law. While extraversion might correlate with higher salaries, individuals measuring higher for the Big 5 trait agreeableness, appear more suited to caring professions than those with higher levels of extraversion, similarly, some occupations might be best suited for those who score lower on extraversion, in other words, introverts. Using average salaries as a measure of success is, therefore, a slightly odd way to assess a person's worth. Does this then mean that a banker, who earns significantly more than a nurse, is somehow more successful or more worthy? I'll leave you to make up your own mind about that one.

These factors add to a wider debate about the need to encourage certain traits that lead to higher levels of success in terms of potential earnings. Not only is it incredibly difficult to turn an introvert into an extravert, any attempt is likely to result in compliance rather than true conversion, that is, the individual will attempt to act counter to their natural proclivity. While this is useful in terms of wider personal projects (discussed later in this chapter), it's unlikely to reap rewards in the long term and could even result in damaging personality issues and mental health problems.

In reality, even extraversion might be less useful than has been claimed. It's not necessarily individual traits that are useful, but rather a combination of traits. Introverts might appear shy, for example (note: never refer to an introvert as shy - we really don't like it) but there's an awful lot going on under the bonnet. Introverts have been found to deliberate more than their excitable counterparts, taking their time and mulling over ideas before responding. Extraverts are certainly highly motivated and can get things done in double-quick time, but quality can suffer and their impulsiveness can cause problems. Similarly, agreeableness is beneficial when dealing with sensitive or potentially explosive situations, yet agreeable people can find that they are taken advantage of. An agreeable introvert will often take what is thrown at them and get the job done, even if this places their health and wider wellbeing at risk. Again, these are extremes, and even an introvert can find a voice and snap back when the extravert becomes a little too cocky - all that high self-esteem can alienate the extravert in the end.

One trait that doesn't appear to be particularly useful in any situation is neuroticism. The actual term neuroticism has been imbued with many negative connotations and there is a good reason why many now refer to it as emotional stability (the opposite end of the spectrum).Those people displaying low levels of emotional stability (or high levels of neuroticism) have a tendency to be over-cautious, anxious and fearful. Indeed, neuroticism, unsurprisingly, correlates highly with test anxiety (discussed in Chapter 8).

Conscientiousness: the super trait?

Extraversion is useful in some situations, while openness is more useful in others; emotional stability is useful when high but not so much when low. But there is one trait that appears to surpass all others. This trait is conscientiousness. Conscientiousness is about persistence and the ability to stay on track despite setbacks. Michael Mount and Murray Barrick offer an excellent definition of the dual aspect of consciousness, as 'a combination of a desire to be dependable and reliable and a desire to be achievement oriented and persevering' (Mount & Barrick, 1995). I'll return to this later when I discuss some of its more problematic elements. Conscientiousness, therefore, relates to our 5C component commitment and shares many of its characteristics with other constructs, namely grit (a relative newcomer to the party but hotly becoming one of the most sought after qualities). Indeed, grit correlates so highly with conscientiousness we can suggest that, rather than being something new, grit is just conscientiousness re-packaged in a more pleasing and media friendly way. Persistence, while not a specific trait included in the Big 5, is included as a standalone trait in the Temperament and Character Inventory, or TCI (one of several alternative models to the Big 5). However, the TCI model also includes a number of sub-scales of persistence: eagerness of effort, work hardened, ambition and perfectionism. Psychologist Angela Duckworth includes many of these factors as part of her ambitious grit model, describing grit as perseverance and passion for longterm goals (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews & Kelly, 2007). Whether or not these traits are actually describing the same quality is perhaps best left to others, yet we can safely assume that conscientiousness also includes many of the key elements related to these other constructs.

What then, do we know about this seemingly super-trait? Conscientious people are well organised, disciplined and efficient. They work hard and will continue until the job is done. However, they can be perfectionists, so the job is rarely done to their satisfaction. This also means that they are more likely to be workaholics. They are good planners and excellent at following instructions, so when they are given a job to do, they will complete it within the given parameters. In other words, they are obedient and very good at following instructions (often to the letter). This obedient nature, however, can mean that they are less creative than their less conscientious peers, however, this relationship is complex.

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