Conscientiousness and creativity: an uneasy relationship

In general, creativity isn't strongly linked to conscientiousness. This might, on the one hand, make intuitive sense because creative people rely more heavily on spontaneity, which isn't exactly one of conscientiousness's strongest points. Surely, creative people need to think outside the box and break the rules, not blindly obey instructions and colour within the lines? Indeed, openness seems to be the trait of choice for the creative type; the desire to explore and experiment, daydream and engage in deep meaningful dialogue. Does this mean that creative people aren't persistent? Surely, you don't become a successful writer without doggedly sending that potentially award-winning manuscript to every publisher in the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook? Vincent Van Gogh is said to have created nine hundred paintings and over a thousand drawings in his entire lifetime, yet sold only one painting. It's difficult to imagine that he wasn't a highly persistent fellow.

This contradiction can be explained by looking more deeply at this powerful trait. As explained at the beginning of this chapter, Big 5 traits are each divided into sub-domains. In the same way that a cake is made up of separate ingredients (flour, eggs, sugar and so on) each of our traits is made up of smaller components that together create the whole and examples of some of these can be seen in the characteristics column of Table 4.1. With conscientiousness, these sub-domains (the ingredients) fall roughly into two groups of components: achievement components and dependable components. The achievement components include factors such as working hard, persistence and goal-orientated behaviour,

Sub-domains of trait conscientiousness

Figure 4.2 Sub-domains of trait conscientiousness

while the dependable components are obedience, conformity and the desire to please (see Figure 4.2). As it turns out, individuals can score high on one set of components but low on the other, and this is exactly what researchers have found with creativity. While creative people score low on general measures of conscientiousness, they score high on the achievement components, with the reliability components dragging down their score. This seems to be in agreement with our generally held views of creative people; they don't like being controlled and are less obedient and compliant; they work hard, persist and plan, but they have a tendency to do all this on their own terms.

Personality and academic performance

Studies consistently find that conscientious students have a higher Grade Point Average (GPA), although openness is a good trait in relation to verbal SAT scores in US samples (see, for example, Noftle & Robins, 2007). Neuroticism (low emotional stability) has been found to impair academic performance in some studies (Chamorro-Premuzic & Furnham, 2003). The relationship between extraversion and academic performance is less clear, however, with some studies finding a positive relationship, some a negative relationship, while others have failed to find any relationship at all.

Conscientiousness, therefore, is a trait with a fairly consistent relationship with academic performance. Students scoring high on conscientiousness score lower on levels of procrastination and are more likely to display higher levels of resilience by being able to bounce back following failure (Schouwenburg & Lay, 1995).

On another negative note, conscientiousness is linked to difficulties in changing direction when problems arise. As long as everything is going according to plan, the conscientious student will toil on, but when circumstances suddenly change, performance suffers. This seems particularly curious, because we are proposing that conscientiousness helps us to recover from setbacks. One would assume that the key element of academic buoyancy is the ability to change, such as adapting to circumstances and employing diverse problem-solving strategies because prior ones have failed. Again, it's likely that the dependable sub-factors of conscientiousness are somehow damping the ability to fully exploit the achievement sub-domains. In other words, the creativity needed to adapt to change is far weaker than our compliance and obedience-oriented behaviour - the tendency to do as we are told and to follow the rules.

It's pretty clear that conscientiousness is important for academic success, but there is also evidence that the dependable component of this seemingly super-trait can prove detrimental to our ability to think on our feet or to cope with sudden changes in the environment. This is not to suggest that following the rules isn't a vital part of education, whether it be in purely academic terms or in respect to the so-called hidden curriculum. There is always a fine line and we must also consider that personality is more a spectrum of traits than absolute ones - human behaviour is highly complex and we need to stay mindful of the possibility that there are some behaviours for which there appears no explanation at all. It's likely that the balance is important with regards to conscientiousness, in that, what makes this trait so powerful is the combination of the components rather than trait as a whole.

As far as academic buoyancy is concerned, therefore, the achievement component of conscientiousness is more useful than the dependable subfactors. Furthermore, if we take personality traits as a whole into consideration, we also see that high levels of neuroticism, that is, low emotional stability, is linked to worry and anxiety and, thus, the composure component of the 5C model. Personality does, indeed, appear to impact our ability to bounce back. There is still a problem here, however. If academic buoyancy is, in part, the product of personality traits, and personality traits are not learned responses, how do we then encourage these important abilities in ourselves and others?

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