Human personality is a well-known concept in both academic and non-academic circles. This concept has raised the most diverse conclusions in both circles: from well-established factorial solutions to classifications of people based on what the Sorting Hat from Hogwarts would estimate. For a long time now, research in psychology has gained plenty of knowledge about human personality and its implications in everyday life, but this knowledge is either unknown or misunderstood by the general population. This situation calls for efforts to close this gap between what is known based on science and what is assumed to be true based on our random and subjective experience. The following 101 series explores the most consensual contemporary conceptualization of personality, the creative steps scientists took to arrive at this conceptualization using the lexical hypothesis, the specificities of this contemporary conceptualization by looking at each one of the Big Five traits, and the implications of each trait for individuals and societies.
The Personality 101 series is divided into 5 chapters:
Personality 101: Openness to Experience
Personality 101: Openness to Experience
Of all the personality traits in the Five Factor Model of personality, Openness to Experience is the broadest and most interesting of them all. This trait includes a mix of features related to intellectual curiosity, perceived intelligence, imagination, creativity, artistic and aesthetic interests, emotional richness, and unconventionality. As can be seen, this trait is not unidimensional but is conformed by a group of elements that may at first seem completely unrelated. This is why this is known as the broadest of all the traits and the one that has received the most diverse definitions (Hirsh et al., 2009). In this article, Openness to Experience will be discussed along with some of the findings that have been researched in the last decades on its relationship with life outcomes.
One of the best ways to define a personality trait is by looking at the questions that have been designed to measure the trait of interest in a personality test. Now, since personality is one of the most studied concepts in psychology, there are a lot of questionnaires that aim to measure personality and, by extension, openness to experience. One of these questionnaires is the NEO-PI-R, also known as the Revised NEO Personality Inventory. In this questionnaire, Openness to Experience is divided into 6 subcategories, commonly known as subtraits. These subtraits are Fantasy, Aesthetics, Feelings, Actions, Ideas, and Values (Costa & McCrae, 1992).
“Fantasy” is understood as having a vivid imagination and discovering a sense of well-being in fantasy. “Aesthetics” means to highly esteem art, music, poetry, and beauty. “Feelings” refers to being receptive to inner feelings, experiencing emotions, and considering them important. The subtrait “Actions” is understood as the need to experience new activities, foods, and places and to prefer novelty to routine. “Ideas” refers to the tendency to be open-minded and willing to consider new ideas and pursue intellectual interests. Lastly, “Values” refers to the willingness to examine social, political, and religious values (Griffin & Hesketh, 2004).
Generally speaking, highly open-minded people are imaginative, sensitive to art and beauty, emotionally oriented, flexible, intellectually curious, and liberal in values. On the other side of the spectrum, closed people are down-to-earth, practical, not interested in art, shallow in affect, used to their ways, not really curious, and inclined to more traditional values. Now, whereas most researchers would consider it desirable to be high in Openness —because, as it turns out, most psychologists are themselves high in Openness (McCrae & Sutin, 2009)—, lay people do not consider it as a desirable trait (Konstabel, 2007).
Openness to Experience has been linked to many life outcomes. One of them is political thinking. For instance, openness has been found to be negatively related to authoritarianism and dogmatism, particularly the Right Wing version of authoritarianism (Trapnell, 1994). Thus, it follows that authoritarian people are closed people and it has also been found that they are more aggressive than non-authoritarian people (Carnahan & McFarland, 2007). Similarly, closed people do not involve themselves in reevaluations of their thoughts and beliefs (Kruglanski & Webster, 1996), having a marked preference for order and predictability in their own personal life but also in their political understanding of societies.
Openness from a cultural perspective is associated with more egalitarian values instead of hierarchical ones and has a more individual-oriented mindset in contrast with a more collective-oriented one (McCrae et al., 2005). There is some evidence on the links between Openness and self-expression, meaning that open people are more comfortable when expressing their ideas and emotions without much restraint (McCrae & Sutin, 2009).
On a similar note, open people emphasize uniqueness and individuality more than closed people, who emphasize loyal, patriotic, and conventional values. In line with this, openness has been found as the best protective factor against prejudice because of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or mental ability (Ekehammar & Akrami, 2007). Furthermore, Openness is inversely related to authoritarianism and this trait protects against extreme forms of social conservatism. Other authors have found that social conservatism tends to be more influenced by psychological processes than other forms of conservatism, such as economical conservatism which is not related at all to the degree of openness (Van Hiel & Mervielde, 2004).
High open individuals show favorable attitudes toward legalizing marijuana, abortion, and same-sex marriage. Incidentally, open people are also found performing jobs in artistic or entertainment industries (Rentfrow et al., 2008).
The outcomes of the trait openness are not only interesting at individual level but also at societal level. So much so that some researchers have investigated which countries score higher in Openness to Experience finding that French-speaking Switzerland, Serbia, Austria, Germany, and German-speaking Switzerland, are the countries with the highest level of openness. On the other side of the spectrum are Croatia, Spain, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and India. From this list a pattern emerges: countries that are characterized as modern, progressive, well-educated are higher in Openness whereas countries with traditional cultures tend to be more psychologically closed (McCrae, 2002).
Another finding in the economic field is that countries with a history of strong economies show more concern for tolerance, imagination, and personal fulfillment: goals than can be easily associated to open individuals (McCrae & Sutin, 2009).
A different life domain in which Openness to Experience has a great influence is relationships and marriage. Individuals who decide to remain single tend to be interested much more in ideas and not attracted by traditional values, both aspects related to Openness to Experience (Johnson et al., 2004).
In the case of mating, people tend to look for partners that score relatively the same as them in Openness. This even surpasses the necessity to find someone similar to them in Extraversion and Agreeableness. This happens much more markedly in the case of values: liberals tend to mate liberals whereas conservatives tend to mate conservatives (McCrae et al., 2008).
The influence of Openness does not end with mate selection. Its effects are also found in relationship quality, conflict interactions, and daily life within the family. Openness, for instance, is associated with satisfaction in both serious romantic relationships and in marriage. Regarding sexuality, higher levels of openness in women predict satisfaction in sexual relationships but not higher levels of openness in males. Thus, satisfaction with sexual life is related to higher levels of openness on the female side, not on the male one (Donnellan et al., 2004).
Furthermore, higher levels of openness are associated with higher levels of conflict resolution. Having an open mindset allows people to be more compassionate about their patterns, limitations, motivations, and intentions. This might be the reason why open people use more constructive communication styles in which both members of the couple feel free to share their feelings, their ideas, and work together towards a favorable resolution. It has also been observed that male and female closed individuals tend to avoid discussion or distract themselves with other activities when conflict arises. This is why people who are more open tend to feel better about their relationships than those who are closed (McCrae & Sutin, 2009).
Openness, however, does not have only good things to bring in a romantic relationship. In fact, a higher level of openness is associated with a more liberal attitude toward divorce and, hence, towards higher rates of divorce (Fahs, 2007). Further, people who score higher in conventionalism (less openness) report less marital distress. On average though, openness seems to be associated with better communication strategies and better capacity to hear different points of view. This capacity also influences satisfaction with parenting: open parents report fewer children's misbehavior as a source of stress. A note of warning should be made here though: this finding does not mean that parents higher in openness have better-behaved children, in fact, it could mean precisely the opposite but this has been explained by considering that open parents are just more tolerant of misbehavior, an interpretation that makes much more sense in light of the other findings (Lee-Baggley et al., 2005).
Arguably, Openness to Experience is one of the least known traits for non-psychologist. However, its influence is multiple and its importance goes beyond petty research questions posed by scientists. To realize that political affiliation, the behavior in relationships, or the willingness to follow the conventional rules of tradition are all explained by this powerful personality trait, makes us much more aware of the degree of influence that we have on these aspects of the human experience and, therefore, makes us more aware of the level of control we have over them and their manifestation. Understanding this is one of the more important aims of psychological research.
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Griffin, B., & Hesketh, B. (2004). Why Openness to Experience is not a Good Predictor of Job Performance. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 12(3), 243–251. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0965-075X.2004.278_1.x
Hirsh, J. B., DeYoung, C. G., & Peterson, J. B. (2009). Metatraits of the Big Five differentially predict engagement and restraint of behavior. Journal of Personality, 77(4), 1085–1102. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-6494.2009.00575.x
Johnson, W., McGue, M., Krueger, R. F., & Bouchard, T. J. (2004). Marriage and personality: A genetic analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86(2), 285–294. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.525
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McCrae, R. R., Martin, T. A., H⊆ebí ková, M., Urbánek, T., Boomsma, D. I., Willemsen, G., & Costa, P. T. (2008). Personality Trait Similarity Between Spouses in Four Cultures. Journal of Personality, 76(5), 1137–1164. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-6494.2008.00517.x
McCrae, R. R., Terracciano, A., & Personality Profiles of Cultures Project. (2005). Universal features of personality traits from the observer’s perspective: Data from 50 cultures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88(3), 547–561. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2067
Rentfrow, P. J., Gosling, S. D., & Potter, J. (2008). A Theory of the Emergence, Persistence, and Expression of Geographic Variation in Psychological Characteristics. Perspectives on Psychological Science: A Journal of the Association for Psychological Science, 3(5), 339–369. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1745-6924.2008.00084.x
Van Hiel, A., & Mervielde, I. (2004). Openness to experience and boundaries in the mind: Relationships with cultural and economic conservative beliefs. Journal of Personality, 72(4), 659–686. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0022-3506.2004.00276.x
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