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Personality tests are two a penny, and most of them are no more meaningful than astrology (spoken like a true Capricorn). But there are ways to study personality empirically—they just involve accepting a lot of imperfection and fuzziness.

The "Big Five" personality traits do seem to get at something meaningful about human personality. They certainly don't capture everything, but Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism are traits that can be measured with a high degree of stability from one test to the next. They change in predictable ways across people's lifespans and with therapy, and they seem to be related in measurable ways to people's lives outside the context of a personality test.

One of those traits—conscientiousness—is, unsurprisingly, strongly related to how people perform at work. But why, and in what settings? A paper published this week in PNAS used the data from more than 2,500 studies to summarize what we know about conscientiousness. Unexpectedly, the authors find that conscientiousness scores make less of a difference to people's performance when they're in high-complexity careers. Instead, they mainly seems to matter in low- or moderate-complexity jobs.

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