The Conscientiousness Test
[Note: This post is just for fun! No need to comment about how these wouldn’t be suitable interview questions or anything like that.]
If you’re an employer who is in the process of hiring someone new, you ought to be interested in how conscientious each potential employee is. Conscientiousness is a strong predictor of work-place success, but it’s probably harder to figure out how hard-working someone is just from giving them an interview or checking their CV than it is to tell if they’re reasonably bright. Admittedly, if someone you’re interviewing has a PhD in Physics from Harvard, you can probably be fairly safe in your assumption that they’re likely to be more conscientious than someone who has been unemployed the past few years - educational attainment and previous work experience can be a useful signal in determining whether someone is diligent or a slacker. But in general, it can be pretty tricky to get a good sense of whether someone is bullshitting you in an interview when they tell you how organised, resourceful, and dedicated to work they are.
So, imagine you’re interviewing someone, and you don’t want to ask them directly how hard-working they are, because of the inevitable ‘I’m literally the hardest working person ever to have existed’ answer you’ll get. Could you ask some questions about things that are associated with being conscientious, but aren’t obviously associated with being conscientious? Maybe we could develop a raft of questions, and give each person a score that might have some predictive power in determining whether they’re likely to be a hard-working person.
Question 1 could be: do you gamble? A paper published this year by Palomäki et al in the Journal of Personality suggests that people with high trait conscientiousness are less likely to gamble - if you are in the bottom decile for the trait, the chance that you gamble is about 29%, whereas if you’re in the top percentile for conscientiousness, the likelihood drops to about 16%. Extraversion is also negatively associated with the chance of being a gambler, but the effect is a bit weaker (see the charts above).
Question 2: Are you a good dancer? Okay, ‘good dancer’ doesn’t quite capture the research finding here, but Carlson et al (2016) does suggest that conscientious people are more likely to respond appropriately to changes in music tempo. Songs were sped up or slowed down and motion capture technology was used to see whether study participants were able to speed up or slow down their dancing in accordance with the change. The personality trait that was correlated with being able to do so was conscientiousness!
Question 3: Did you do better in exams or coursework at school/university? This study from the Journal ‘Learning and Individual Differences’ suggests that conscientiousness is a pretty good predictor of how well a university study does at the essays you have to write over a few weeks or months, but is a much worse predictor of exam performance.
Question 4: When was the last time you had a traffic accident? Jovanović et al (2011) found that trait conscientiousness was negatively correlated with aggressive driving behaviour, and they note in the paper that previous studies have shown that conscientiousness is the only personality trait that has previously been shown to have an association with how many traffic accidents a person has been in, citing a study from 1996. That being said, I think that most interviewees would probably realise that saying that they were aggressive drivers who often got into traffic accidents might not be a totally brilliant answer to give, so maybe this one wouldn’t work so well.
Question 5: Are you politically active? Here’s a super interesting study from South Korea that used a nationally representative survey - conscientiousness seems like it is quite strongly positively correlated with some forms of political activity, and strongly negatively correlated with others. See the chart above - conscientious people are much more likely to contact the media or political officials about a political position they have (write letters to the editor and so on), and more likely donate to political parties, but less likely to attend a political rally.
This is my proposed five question test to check whether someone is conscientious without alerting them to what you’re doing, feel free to go ahead and use it… okay, I don’t actually suggest doing this, the correlations aren’t really big enough to give you a particularly definitive answer on whether someone is hard working or not, and I haven’t really been through all of the studies in enough detail to check whether the methodology is sound, so maybe you shouldn’t jump to basing your hiring practices on this little test. Still, I think it could be beneficial for employers or some recruiting company to do something like this (assuming it’s legal to try and infer personality traits, I haven’t really looked into it, and I know you can’t actually carry out IQ tests when hiring in some countries so who knows what weird laws there might be), conscientiousness is clearly important in an employee and getting any advantage over other employees in determining who is likely to be hard working seems like it would pay off, especially if it’s as easy as figuring out what is correlated with conscientiousness as I’ve tried to do here. Let me know what you think in the comments or on Twitter.