Openness to Experience

big five

In contemporary psychology, the ‘Big Five’ are five broad domains or dimensions of personality which are used to describe human personality: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Openness involves active imagination, aesthetic sensitivity, attentiveness to inner feelings, preference for variety, and intellectual curiosity.

A great deal of psychometric research has demonstrated that these qualities are statistically correlated. Thus, openness can be viewed as a global personality trait consisting of a set of specific traits, habits, and tendencies that cluster together.

Openness tends to be normally distributed with a small number of individuals scoring extremely high or low on the trait, and most people scoring near the average. People who score low on openness are considered to be closed to experience. They tend to be conventional and traditional in their outlook and behavior. They prefer familiar routines to new experiences, and generally have a narrower range of interests. People who are open to experience are no different in mental health from people who are closed to experience. There is no relationship between openness and neuroticism, or any other measure of psychological wellbeing. Being open and closed to experience are simply two different ways of relating to the world.

According to research by Sam Gosling, it is possible to assess openness by examining people’s homes and work spaces. Individuals who are highly open to experience tend to have distinctive and unconventional decorations. They are also likely to have books on a wide variety of topics, a diverse music collection, and works of art on display.

Openness to experience correlates with creativity, as measured by tests of divergent thinking. Openness is also associated with crystallized intelligence (the ability to use skills, knowledge, and experience), but not fluid intelligence (the capacity to think logically and solve problems in novel situations). These mental abilities may come more easily when people are dispositionally curious and open to learning. However, openness is only weakly related to general intelligence. Openness to experience is related to need for cognition, a motivational tendency to think about ideas, scrutinize information, and enjoy solving puzzles.

There are social and political implications to this personality trait. People who are highly open to experience tend to be politically liberal and tolerant of diversity. As a consequence, they are generally more open to different cultures and lifestyles. They are lower in ethnocentrism and right-wing authoritarianism. Openness to experience was found to be associated with life satisfaction in older adults after controlling for confounding factors.

Openness to experience, like the other traits in the five factor model, is believed to have a genetic component. Identical twins (who have the same DNA) show similar scores on openness to experience, even when they have been adopted into different families and raised in very different environments. Higher levels of openness have been linked to activity in the ascending dopaminergic system and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Openness is the only personality trait that correlates with neuropsychological tests of dorsolateral prefrontal cortical function, supporting theoretical links among openness, cognitive functioning, and IQ.

An Italian study found that people who lived on Tyrrhenian islands tended to be less open to experience than those living on the nearby mainland, and that people whose ancestors had inhabited the islands for twenty generations tended to be less open to experience than more recent arrivals. Additionally, people who emigrated from the islands to the mainland tended to be more open to experience than people who stayed on the islands, and than those who immigrated to the islands.

People living in the eastern and western parts of the United States tend to score higher on openness to experience than those living in the midwest and the south. The highest average scores on openness are found in the states of New York, Oregon, Massachusetts, Washington, and California. Lowest average scores come from North Dakota, Wyoming, Alaska, Alabama, and Wisconsin.

Psychologists in the early 1970s used the concept of openness to experience to describe people who are more likely to use marijuana. Openness was defined in these studies as high creativity, adventuresomeness, internal sensation novelty seeking, and low authoritarianism. Several correlational studies confirmed that young people who score high on this cluster of traits are more likely to use marijuana. More recent research has replicated this finding using contemporary measures of openness. A 2011 study found Openness (and not other traits) was increased by psilocybin.

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