Conscientiousness vs. working hard

South Korea ranks second to last in terms of conscientiousness but also ranks first in the number of hours worked.  South Korea is not an anomaly.  Country-level reports of Big Five conscientiousness are unrelated to the number of hours worked.  The rank correlation between hours worked and conscientiousness across countries is negative, though statistically insignificant.

That is from “Some Contributions of Economics to the Study of Personality,” a new working paper by James J. Heckman, Tomas Jagelka, and Timothy D. Kautz.  How do you interpret these numbers?  That the notion of conscientiousness is poorly measured?  Or that “susceptibility to manipulation by incentives” is a separate quality, highly valued in a workforce, but not well correlated with “conscientiousness as we know it”?


Maybe less conscientious people report their hours worked less accurately.

Please note the "statistically insignificant part". You and many people in this thread are taking a relationship of r=-.07 derived from a study n=36 and trying to generalize some universal rule about how conscientiousness affects working hours.

Sorry, that's "'statistically insignificant' part".

Unrepresentative samples too. Mostly college students, a tiny % of the population in some countries but certainly unrepresentative.

Long hours can be hard, or they can be easy. Hard when you are working in an Amazon warehouse and they are counting minutes for bathroom breaks. Easy when you are just sitting in your boss's office, shooting the .. breeze. I think the Asian hours include a lot of such padding, but I don't really know. Never worked there. Just hard and easy hours here in the US.

(There are also the semi-acknowledged internet breaks for office workers.)

So it is well-known that in Japan and China there is a mid-day break (in Spanish - Siesta) that lasts for about 1-2 hours. You'll see this especially in China where office workers will disappear under or at their desks and rest - or sometimes fall asleep - mid-day. I never begrudged this honestly considering most of them are going home at 1900-1000 anyway and are having the evening meal with their families, some of them, at 2100 (9pm), but still have work to do or still have to go out with senior staff.

They're only human and that would floor even the hardest Ukrainian.

Atlernatively, the measures don't work well when comparing across race and culture but only within similar groups.

Is taxation of higher earnings due to extra hours worked a factor? Perhaps a high progressive income tax is associated with conscientiousness at the national level for historical/cultural reasons.
Suppose that hours worked is used by employers as a readily observable proxy for employee conscientiousness. Signalling conscientiousness with long hours would then be less important for employers who are actually conscientious and have the ability to signal this in other ways (quality detailed work, punctuality), leading to decorrelation.

*should be "employees" in final sentence. (I signal my conscientiousness by staying in the office and writing internet comments rather than detail-orientation).

I would say (having worked in multiple countries) that hours worked definitely does not equal productivity. In many developing countries bosses use proxies like long hours as a measure of the value of the individual, because either it is difficult to measure productivity, or individual productivity is so low it doesn't matter. Western countries are much better at this, actually I have seen the signal work the other way with people who work odd hours demonstrating that they are not afraid of being fired as they have desirable skill sets.

I would add that having worked as an employee in many different organizations in my career, from government, academia, start-up, to two large Fortune 100 companies, I have noticed that the most productive workers are often forced out of the company or shipped off to a distant division or location (never to be seen or heard again) because the productive employee made the manager look bad or was considered too "threatening" to the higher-ups. It's the quiet, non-threatening, "company man" worker that usually gets promoted or stays on the job forever. At least that's been my experience.

Of course rent seeking by middle management is a thing, but generally speaking I have seen good employees get on, versus bad ones who don't. People who can solve problems and get things done are just too valuable. Also when someone is a crappy boss who treats their people this way, in my experience they usually get found out sooner or later as good people will avoid working for them and move to other roles.
Also you need to be careful about a self reported view on whether or not someone is a good employee. I have had some employees working for me in the past who had very inflated views on their contribution, and were surprised that other people didn't share that view, but rather than adjusting their performance they would argue that this was somehow unfair or bad judgement even when they got this feedback from multiple people. Good employees OTOH generally underestimate their contribution as they have a view that they can always do better.

I worked for four decades in IT. Both in the corporate world and at not-for-profits.

Alvin's experience matches mine exactly.

The most productive workers threaten the boss and soon get 'side-tracked'.

Now you remind me of a dude who would slack for a couple weeks, and then loudly pull all-nighters to hit his deadline.

Management actually gave him a special "valued employee" award.

A normal complaint from an unskilled employee. Boomers.

“He did nothing! Then he did something! Young bad!”

Almost always a technical adjacent Boomer. Who thinks SQL queries is coding. “That man did nothing until he figured out the linear algebra algorithm in one day, he’s worthless and my COBOL and SQL query abilities mean he’s overpaid!”

OK Boomer. You’re not overpaid. You’re worse than useless. You’re preventing companies from adopting more rational data storage and manipulation strategies..

Jesus Christ at least try to learn current tech.

Do you consider writing Excel macros to be coding?

( retired COBOL programmer whose last job was administering a MySQL server farm )

First sentence here is the correct answer. It stands to reason that conscientious people recognize and optimize toward delivering actual value and assume that "breathing employer's air" is not what the employer values. The conscientious people I've worked with in shops that prioritize ass-in-chair did not stick around.

Low conscientiousness can manifest in poor organizational skills or difficulty concentrating, which makes people to work longer hours to make up for lower efficiency.

Workaholics contribute to inequality. That seems obvious (they work more hours and make more income), but it's been added to the litany of explanations/rationalizations for rising income inequality.

The negative correlation between hours worked and conscientiousness might suggest that the workaholics among us are cheating not only their employers but the rest of us who are not workaholics: the workaholics are paid more but don't deserve it. In other words, the added explanation/rationalization for income inequality is mostly nonsense.

1. It’s a cross country comparison
2. It’s statistically insignificant
3. The workaholics and inequality meme you are referencing is about tournament-game style positions (corporate law, finance, consulting)

Whether those positions in 3 are actually value add is another story.

Let’s use working hard to signify output, not just time. In distance running, Jack Daniels has intensity points for time at a rate of oxygen consumption (vdot).

"That the notion of conscientiousness is poorly measured?"


After all, in these studies East Asia usually has measured as having low conscientiousness and South Europe as having high conscientiousness; this is so counterintuitive that I suppose that "high conscientiousness" people usually think that they are not conscientious enough (seeming "low conscientiousness" in self-reports) and vice-versa.

Asian students often self-report that their math skills are inferior, while US student's self report that their math skills are pretty good.

I've been living in Chile since 2007, there's no way that it ranks #3 in conscientiousness.

Yeah, and Japan at the bottom at #28 next to South Korea. This is self-reported and meaningless.

Why don't they ask corporate people with international experience to rate countries in which they've spent significant amounts of time?

No, not poorly measured at all. There is a lot of literature on how to measure conscientiousness and the significance of that measure to a plethora of measurable outcomes.

Conscientiousness has always struck me as misunderstood, especially from a "folk psychology" perspective. Conscientious people are the hardest thinkers, not necessarily the hardest workers. Their thoughts are the most organized, not necessarily their outward physical lives. They have been born with a superpower and a curse; they are capable of delivering thorough and comprehensive results, but they are prone to perfectionism and paralysis. Anecdotally, they seem to be primarily attracted to alcohol and drugs to lose the inhibitions associated with their conscientiousness. The founders of companies Professor Cowen interviews are all "high functioning conscientious" individuals, the typical lot is not as good at turning their organized mental representations into coherent actions. This is not neuroticism, indeed the two traits seem to be negatively correlated. Mainly, conscientious people are not as depressed, as they know their paralysis is temporary, and they will have spurts of productivity from time to time. Less conscientious people have lower variance in their productivity.

Basically, think of highly conscientious people the same way you think about a highly skilled economy in an O-ring theory. When everything aligns, it's magic. Every effort is secondary to perfecting the alignment, including labor hours. Less conscientious people know drudgery is the only thing keeping them out of poverty.

That's not the definition of conscientiousness that the paper is using, which explicitly says it's "the tendency to be hard-working and persistent". Nothing there about being the hardest thinker or perfectionism.

'The rank correlation ... is negative, though statistically insignificant.'

Then you don't know it's negative, do you?

Most top chess players work hard at improving their status because they are highly competitive, not because they're conscientious.
I wouldn't be surprised if competitiveness and conscientiousness are negatively correlated. (Possibly related book: The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch – March 15, 2016 by Jonathan Gottschall.)

"Hours worked" is often nothing more than pure face time meant to impress a boss, and is not necessarily productive work time- in fact most people become less productive when they work more than a standard 8 hour day. I once had a coworker from South Korea who spent his mornings playing games and then stayed into the evening getting his work done. My boss's reaction to this when she became aware of it was to point out to the team that she wasn't impressed with people who stayed late, instead she wondered why they couldn't get their work done in a standard work day.

My guess is that it is more of the latter. One can be "disciplined" yet not "conscientious". Discipline implies a high degree of self-honesty and acting in a way to achieve desirable long-term goals. These goals can be desirably for the self, but not necessarily for others. So I see no contradiction of someone who works very diligently, yet doesn't care about the welfare of others.

I used to work on Wall Street. There, the workforce was unusually hard working and disciplined. But I wouldn't say that they were more conscientious than average.

All I can add is that I worked for several months in the Samsung Korea HQ office as a strategy consultant. In my entire career it was the only time a client asked me to "add more slides so that the boss finds this more important".

I think you'd need to do an association analysis of whether any subset of questions that constitute "Conscientiousness" is associated with Annual Hours Worked.

This result has been known for a while and could include that stressing self "Conscientiousness" relates to some sort of labour market transformation that does not really relate to hours. (Some markets bullshit more than others). But I don't think it is really obviously susceptible to analysis.

I certainly wouldn't throw away labour productivity data over it! I doubt Koreans have dead hours and that you could reduce their working week down to Japanese levels with concomittent rise in productivity (nor would US productivity, probably best in the OECD barring states with screwy GDP/capita shifts but only comparable to Germany, boost up by being cut down to German hours).

Why would a conscientious person spend time with her boss as opposed to her friends and family?

Looking at an online explainer of conscientiousness, this sounds exactly like the South Koreans I know:

"Conscientious people will therefore take care not to inadvertently offend or upset others by either their words or actions."

"They also feel a sense of duty towards others."

"a conscientious person will often be careful to be reliable, and to be on time for important meetings and appointments. They are keen to keep to their schedule, often maintaining a diary and making plans for the future, as well as budgeting for events well ahead of time."

I bet very conscientious people self-report lower levels of conscientiousness because they feel bad they aren't doing as well as they could.

Source: American worker whose products are manufactured in South Korea. I've spent a week in a Korean factory/office for each of the last 4 years.

One way to interpret this finding is that “number of hours worked” may be more about virtue / value signaling than about productivity

Seems like the causal arrow might be reversed. People might believe their society has low conscientiousness because they feel social pressure at work.

In my experience working and managing in Japan, I've never seen anyone leave early. It's a curious take on personal responsibility that work left undone will remain undone, as people don't cover for each other easily and it causes bad feelings. But this puts enormous pressure on each individual to contribute positively and constantly to the team, and I think this contributes to a glacial pace for new processes.

Most of the people in this thread are ignoring the "statistically insignificant part" and trying to come up with their correlation explanations.

You're taking a study with n=36 and an r=-.07 and trying to generalize some universal rule about how conscientiousness affects working hours.

I was more concerned with the characterization of which countries as a whole are "low conscientiousness" (which doesn't fit my experience) than the insignificant correlation to working hours.

Conscientiousness is what the conscientiousness sub-scales of common personality inventories, like HEXACO, assess. Working more hours is what it means (similarly with other items in the sub-scale) to be conscientious, rather than conscientious people working more hours. In other words, it is part of a definition rather than a fact about the world. The specific items in sub-scales are intended as samples of typical, characteristic behavior, thoughts, and feelings.

In the land of slackers the ppl who do do the work have to work more because there are fewer of them

"That the notion of conscientiousness is poorly measured?"

The passage that Tyler quotes is in a section of the paper that is literally about "reference bias".

And the very first sentences of the first two paragraphs of that section say this: "Answers from self-reports can be misleading when comparing levels of personality skills across different groups of people ... This measurement problem—sometimes called reference bias—is empirically important."

So I think the paper makes clear what the answer to Tyler's question is.

Not surprisingly, this is a known problem. That section goes on to talk about how psychologists use "anchoring vignettes" to come up with better measures. Based on this article

it appears that an anchoring vignette is a description of a person with various characteristics, and the survey respondent is asked to rate that hypothetical person using the same scale that they just used to rate themselves on say conscientiousness. Now the researchers have the beginnings of a fixed scale -- or at least fixed vignettes -- that they can use to calibrate the respondents' self-reports of their conscientiousness.

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