The 'dark side' and 'bright side' of personality: when too much conscientiousness and too little anxiety are detrimental with respect to the acquisition of medical knowledge and skill

PLoS One. 2014 Feb 27;9(2):e88606. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0088606. eCollection 2014.

Abstract

Theory suggests that personality traits evolved to have costs and benefits, with the effectiveness of a trait dependent on how these costs and benefits relate to the present circumstances. This suggests that traits that are generally viewed as positive can have a 'dark side' and those generally viewed as negative can have a 'bright side' depending on changes in context. We test this in a sample of 220 UK medical students with respect to associations between the Big 5 personality traits and learning outcomes across the 5 years of a medical degree. The medical degree offers a changing learning context from pre-clinical years (where a more methodical approach to learning is needed) to the clinical years (where more flexible learning is needed, in a more stressful context). We argue that while trait conscientiousness should enhance pre-clinical learning, it has a 'dark side' reducing the acquisition of knowledge in the clinical years. We also suggest that anxiety has a 'bright side' enhancing the acquisition of skills in the clinical years. We also explore if intelligence enhances learning across the medical degree. Using confirmatory factor analysis and structural equation modelling we show that medical skills and knowledge assessed in the pre-clinical and clinical years are psychometrically distinguishable, forming a learning 'backbone', whereby subsequent learning outcomes are predicted by previous ones. Consistent with our predictions conscientiousness enhanced preclinical knowledge acquisition but reduced the acquisition of clinical knowledge and anxiety enhanced the acquisition of clinical skills. We also identified a curvilinear U shaped association between Surgency (extraversion) and pre-clinical knowledge acquisition. Intelligence predicted initial clinical knowledge, and had a positive total indirect effect on clinical knowledge and clinical skill acquisition. For medical selection, this suggests that selecting students high on conscientiousness may be problematic, as it may be excluding those with some degree of moderate anxiety.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Anxiety
  • Clinical Competence
  • Conscience
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Intelligence
  • Knowledge
  • Learning
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Models, Theoretical
  • Personality*
  • Students, Medical / psychology*

Grant support

This project was initially funded by ‘Trent Workforce Development Confederation’ as a PhD studentship to HS. JY by SIFT (Service Increment for Teaching). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.