How conscientious are you?

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Conscientiousness like other higher function traits is advantageous to the modern society in aggregate, as well as individually. It may even be evolutionarily adaptive:

In several respects, conscientiousness is an unusual personality trait. Because hunter-gatherer life did not require as much planning and memory for debts and duties as life in larger-scale societies with more complex divisions of labor, conscientiousness may have evolved to higher average levels only recently, and perhaps to a greater degree in some populations than others.” – Geoffrey Miller, Evolutionary psychologist (Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior)

But, behold my surprise when I came across this publication this week. Is it possible that being conscientious may prove to be advantageous in MS? The authors point out that conscientiousness is a core personality trait with favorable prognosis in neuropyschiatric disorders. Similarly, it appears to be favorable in Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.

In MS, conscientiousness has already been found to be associated with preserved cortical volume and fronto/parietal connectivity.

In this paper Fuchs et al. studied 424 PwMS, a much larger group than before, to see whether there is a link. They used lateral ventricular volume (LVV) as a metric of brain atrophy. The NEO-FFI 60-item questionnaire was used to measure the five core personality traits: neuroticism, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.

This graph summarizes their findings:

A significant Conscientiousness by time-from-baseline interaction (t = –2.08, p ⩽ 0.001) indicated that higher baseline Conscientiousness predicted slower rates of brain atrophy. For an illustration of this effect, we plotted the mean estimated rate of brain atrophy (LVV change) for subjects with high baseline Conscientiousness (t-score = 1, SD above mean) relative to those with lower Conscientiousness. These estimates were produced using linear mixed effects modeling, accounting for the effect of time from baseline

The authors suggest that the findings “may relate to adaptive behavior. People with high Conscientiousness are more likely to maintain positive health behaviors, including adherence to prescribed medical treatment. High Conscientiousness might also be a correlate of a more healthy brain, as higher Conscientiousness in PwMS is associated cross-sectionally with higher gray matter volume and spared frontal-parietal disruption by white matter lesions.

In which case, you’ll be glad to know that the other remaining four ‘big’ personality traits are openness, extraversion, agreeableness, and emotional stability. Apparently, these traits are also found in our close cousins, the chimpanzees!

Mult Scler. 2019 Jun 20:1352458519858605. doi: 10.1177/1352458519858605. [Epub ahead of print]

Trait Conscientiousness predicts rate of brain atrophy in multiple sclerosis.

Fuchs TA, Benedict RH, Wilding G, Wojcik C, Jakimovski D, Bergsland N, Ramasamy DP, Weinstock-Guttman B, Zivadinov R, Dwyer MG.

Abstract

BACKGROUND:

Conscientiousness is a core personality trait with favorable prognosis in neuropsychiatric disease.

OBJECTIVE:

We aimed to determine whether baseline Conscientiousness predicts future brain atrophy in multiple sclerosis (MS) after accounting for demographic and basic clinical characteristics.

METHODS:

Trait Conscientiousness, clinical features, and Expanded Disability Status Scale (EDSS) were obtained at baseline. Lateral ventricle volume (LVV) was measured longitudinally. In a retrospective general linear mixed effects model, data from 424 patients were analyzed (mean 6 time-points, up to 15 years).

RESULTS/CONCLUSION:

We observed significant age and Conscientiousness by time-from-baseline interactions indicating that younger age and higher Conscientiousness are associated with reduced progression of brain atrophy.

About the author

Neuro Doc Gnanapavan

11 comments

  • After spending 35 years in teaching, where any lack of conscientiousness spells certain disaster, I feel this is good news indeed.

  • My school reports were riddled with this word ‘conscientious’. I have tried to rebel and be otherwise, but it seems a well-ingrained trait. It does have advantages, but I also think it has caused me a lot of anxiety and stress. It didn’t stop me developing MS anyway. But I have a near perfect set of teeth, have a loving partner, follow a healthy diet… But there are many times when I’d like to just say “Oh **** it.”

  • “In several respects, conscientiousness is an unusual personality trait. Because hunter-gatherer life did not require as much planning and memory for debts and duties as life in larger-scale societies with more complex divisions of labor, conscientiousness may have evolved to higher average levels only recently, and perhaps to a greater degree in some populations than others.”

    I doubt that this is well substantiated by real evidence. For example, I think hunter-gatherers will need a lot of cooperation with each other, intimate knowledge of their environment and seasonal variations in food supply, and techniques and skills in obtaining food. And look at our ‘organised society’. How conscientious are many bank managers and people working for the DWP? I think conscientiousness is more of a burden to those cold fish. Perhaps social psychopathy is a competing survival trait. How does it do on a graph against brain atrophy I wonder?

    • Sociopathic psychopaths are often above average intelligence (so possibly an inference on brain volume can be made from this). They are very good at hiding themselves in plain sight and therefore impossible to put a frequency on the trait from an evolutionary perspective. You would think that emotive empathy (ie emotional quotient) is more useful to society than cognitive empathy (ie the ability to read the public well and thereby manipulate them)?

      • “You would think that emotive empathy (ie emotional quotient) is more useful to society than cognitive empathy (ie the ability to read the public well and thereby manipulate them)?”

        Doesn’t explain ms but….explains Trump….and all the Kings and Queens and guillotines.

      • Yes, they do know how to hide, are very self-aware, but they often tend to be very successful people in their careers etc. But if everyone was a sociopath, wouldn’t society implode, collapse in anarchy? No one would trust anyone else? Sociopathy is parasitic, because it feeds off of the trusting, the gullible? So yes, perhaps emotive empathy is more sustainable on the level of society.

        But emotive actions can also be partly selfish at their root… Say I have the choice to either save the life of my partner or alternatively the lives of five strangers. I might well choose my partner. An emotive decision of the heart… And also selfish. A psychopath might find it easier to take the other choice.

  • A quick look online shows that conscientiousness is measured by at least some factors (hard working, orderliness) that could be explained by losses in executive function and fatigue—cognitive losses typical of MS.

    How confident are you in the internal validity of this study?

    • So I would be more satisfied if the questionnaire had been repeated. As we know people have a way of changing their minds! Having said this, it’s not the first study to report similar findings…

  • How do the researchers define conscientousness? Polishing your shoes? Tidying the dishes away? Watering the tomato plants? Most people are conscientious in some things and not in others. Can see that being conscientious about eating well, for example, might have an impact, or perhaps being conscientious about taking medication … but you could as easily define these things as ‘eating a healthy diet’ and ‘taking medication’.

    • “being conscientious about taking medication …”

      Many are diligent in taking DMT’s and then are shocked when
      through no fault of their own…smoldering ms has used up their
      brain reserve and resulted in progressive ms.

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