Are we the only animals to be conscientious?

November 1, 2017 Richard Justenhoven

image conscientiousness

Exploring different forms of conscientiousness

Conscientiousness is the desire we humans have to do our work – or perform our duties – well, and to do this thoroughly.

Psychologists and researchers know it’s a core aspect of human personality; it figures in the so-called ‘Big Five’ as it has done  in personality models and assessments through the years but, unlike other human traits which can also be manifesting in animals, it’s been thought that animals simply don’t possess conscientiousness.

And this has always prompted the questions as to how and why have humans developed this trait. There is now somewhat of an answer being proposed.

Mikel Delgado and Frank Sulloway at the University of California, Berkeley, have undertaken a review of nearly 3,000 papers for any of 103 trait terms related to conscientiousness in the descriptions of animal behaviour which could be seen as consistent with how it’s characterised in people.

The result of this review was that not only could say that ‘conscientiousness’ was indeed demonstrated by animals but they also identified two different categories of conscientious behaviour in animals.

The first of these relates to the trait of striving to achieve; the second includes order, industriousness and responsibility. And they found out that these two categories are seen in different animal groups:

  • Primates and other mammals score positively on the first conscientiousness category.
  • In contrast, birds, insects and fish score positively on the second category to do with order, industriousness and responsibility.
  • Amphibians/reptiles and other invertebrates had neutral or low scores on both categories.

Perhaps, as the researchers suggest, these two categories of conscientious traits may have evolved to solve different sets of problems. The first category which is focused on achievement striving and competence tends to relate more to intelligent behaviour generally and perhaps is important for the ability to cope with the demands of living in a group. The researchers argue that this set of traits has been driven by an increasingly complex social environment. The other category can relate, they argue, to the building of nests or other protective structures, and colony life.

But it seems that not all conscientiousness-related traits used to describe human behaviours are seen in animals; we’re unique in feeling and demonstrating ‘dutifulness’, ‘conventionality’, ‘traditionalism’ and ‘virtue’.

There are clearly limitations to this review study, and Delgado and Sulloway accept that human biases may affect the labels that researchers give to animal behaviours (are some insects really ‘orderly’, rather than ‘competent’ or ‘self-controlled’?) the researchers do suggest that they have found “ample evidence that building blocks for the personality dimension of conscientiousness exist across species, from insects to primates, even if this domain of behaviour sometimes expresses itself differently in other animals than it does in humans.”

And what does this mean for us as psychologists and those interested in conscientiousness?

It means that research must continue – not least into how these categories of conscientiousness has evolved.

Reference:

Delgado, M. M., & Sulloway, F. J. (2017). Attributes of conscientiousness throughout the animal kingdom: An empirical and evolutionary overview. Psychological Bulletin, 143(8), 823-867.

 

About the Author

Richard Justenhoven is the product development director within Aon's Assessment Solutions. A leading organizational psychologist, Richard is an acknowledged expert in the design, implementation and evaluation of online assessments and a sought after speaker about such topics.

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