How Openness Affects Your Behavior

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In This Article

Openness, also often referred to as openness to experience, is one of the Big Five factors of personality. The Big Five theory suggests that personality is composed of five major dimensions. Each dimension represents a continuum, so you can be high, low, or somewhere in the middle with regards to each trait.

The Big Five Factors

In addition to openness, the Big Five include:

This trait taxonomy is a useful tool for thinking about personality, and research suggests that these five dimensions can play a part in predicting life outcomes in areas that include physical health, mental health, school, work, and social relationships.

People who tend to be high in the trait of openness are more willing to embrace new things, fresh ideas, and novel experiences. They are open-minded and approach new things with curiosity and tend to seek out novelty. They tend to pursue new adventures, experiences, and creative endeavors. They are also very good at thinking about and making connections between different concepts and ideas.

People who are low on openness, on the other hand, tend to prefer routines, traditions, and familiarity. They approach new things with great caution and prefer consistency. Individuals who are very low on the trait of openness are often seen as being rigid and close-minded. They may find it difficult to cope with changes.

Individuals who are low in this trait may pass up opportunities to try new things, including changes that could lead to academic or career advancement. Rather than move to a new place to go to a different school or make a career change to find a more rewarding job, they may stick with what is routine and familiar.

Common Characteristics of Openness

According to one definition: 

“Openness/Intellect reflects imagination, creativity, intellectual curiosity, and appreciation of esthetic experiences. Broadly, Openness/Intellect relates to the ability and interest in attending to and processing complex stimuli.”

People who are high in this trait are more likely to seek out new experiences. They enjoy things that are new, different, and surprising. They are also more likely to pay attention to their feelings and inner experiences.

People who are high in openness tend to have many of the following characteristics:

  • Creative
  • Intelligent and knowledgeable
  • Give great attention to mental imagery
  • Interested in new things
  • Enjoys hearing new ideas
  • Likes thinking about abstract concepts
  • Usually more liberal and open to diversity
  • Interested in artistic endeavors
  • Adventurous

Openness to experience also tends to be correlated to another psychological trait known as absorption, which involves the ability to become immersed in imagination or fantasy. This construct may also be linked to hypnotic susceptibility, or the tendency to be hypnotizable. 

Causes

The exact causes of a person's tendency to be either open or closed to experience are likely caused by both genetics and experience. In psychology, this is often known as the nature or nurture debate. The nature side of the debate argues that certain psychological tendencies are largely caused by heritable factors, while the nurture side of the debate suggests that experience and environmental factors play the most pivotal role.

Twin studies of the Big Five personality traits suggest that heritability accounts for between 40 to 60% of the individual variance in traits. While there is not a great deal of research available on the specific causes of each individual trait, one study found that 21% of differences in openness between individuals was due to heritability. Another study suggested that approximately 10% of the variance in novelty-seeking was due to genetic inheritance.

How Is Openness Measured?

Openness to experience, like the other four factors of personality, is usually measured using self-report inventories. These questionnaires typically contain a number of statements and people then choose a response that best reflects how much they agree with the statement.

For example, a typical inventory might contain a series of statements similar to the following and respondents then select a response between 1 (strongly disagree) and 5 (strongly agree).

How Open to Experience Are You?

If you are curious about how you might rate yourself on this personality trait, this informal quiz can give you a general idea. Examples of statements that you might find related to openness include:

  • I'm good at coming up with new ideas. 
  • I often think about the deeper meaning of things.
  • I'm curious about how things work. 
  • I enjoy thinking about theoretical ideas. 
  • I have many artistic hobbies. 
  • I place a high value on aesthetics and artistry. 
  • I have an active imagination.
  • I appreciate being around diverse groups of people.
  • I enjoy having philosophical discussions.
  • I tend to daydream or get distracted by flights of fancy. 
  • I like going to cultural events, art museums, and poetry readings.
  • I would prefer to have a theoretical discussion rather than making small talk.

If you strongly agree with most or all of these statements, then you are likely very open to experience. If you moderately agree with all or some of these statements, you are probably like most people and fall somewhere in the middle of the openness spectrum. If you disagree with all or most of these statements, then you might be lower on openness.

The advantage of this type of measurement is that self-reports tend to be very quick and easy to administer. One potential downside, however, is the tendency respondents sometimes have to answer in ways that are more socially desirable. In other instances, people select answers that reflect how they want to see themselves, rather than choose answers that are more reflective of their true behavior.

How Does Openness Influence Behavior?

Openness is often viewed as a positive trait. Open people have a higher level of intrinsic motivation to pursue knowledge for its own sake. They are curious about the world and want to learn more about how it works. They are also eager to try new things, so they may be better able to adapt and thrive when faced with changes in their environment, situation, or relationships.

This doesn’t mean that openness doesn’t have any downsides. Because people who are high on this trait seek novelty, they may also be more willing to engage in risky behaviors. Interestingly, however, some studies have linked decreased openness to increased risk for drug use.

Creativity

Of the five traits described by the big five theory, openness to experience is the only personality factor that research consistently links to creativity. People who are high in openness tend to be more creative in general, are more likely to pursue creative achievements, engage in divergent thinking, and take part in creative hobbies. 

One study found that openness predicted creative achievement in the arts, where being high in the sub-component of intellect predicted creative successes in the sciences. Artists and scientists often score higher on tests of this trait than do people who work in other professions.

Learning and Knowledge

Because people with high levels of openness are interested in new things, they are often motivated to learn about new ideas and acquire new knowledge. Research has found that openness to experience is correlated with intelligence as well as what is known as crystallized intelligence. This type of intelligence involves the ability to use all of the facts and knowledge that a person acquires throughout life.

Openness to experience has also been linked to what is known as the need for cognition. The need for cognition is a tendency to pursue activities that necessitate thinking, including thinking about ideas and engaging in mentally complex tasks. People who have a high need for cognition enjoy doing things like solving puzzles, brainstorming solutions to problems, and analyzing ideas.

When listening to an argument, people who are high on cognition tend to focus on aspects of the ideas themselves, where people who are low on this need pay greater attention to things like the likability of the person presenting the argument.

Political Attitudes

Studies have also found that openness is linked to social and political attitudes. People who are high on openness also tend to be more politically liberal. They are more open and accepting toward people of diverse social, cultural, and religious backgrounds. Studies have also found that openness is negatively correlated with right-wing authoritarianism and conservative political views.

However, while openness is linked to certain social and political attitudes, it is important to remember that the development of such beliefs is far more complex than a singular personality trait. While the traditional view has long been that personality traits play a role in the formation of later political attitudes, some research suggests that the correlation between the two may be a result of underlying genetic factors.

Such research suggests that other traits including conscientiousness, the need for order, intolerance of ambiguity, the need for closure, and fear of threats also play an important part in shaping overall political views.

Relationships

Openness can also play a role in relationships. While openness seems to play a less pivotal role than some of the other factors of personality, it has been shown to play an important role with regard to sex. People who are high in openness tend to be more informed about sexual relationships, have a more open attitude toward sex, and have more sexual experiences.

Research has also found an association between women’s high levels of openness and their sexual satisfaction in their marriages. Another study suggested that openness plays a role in determining the frequency of sex in married couples.

How Common Is Openness?

As with other traits, openness to experience and knowledge represents a continuum. Some people tend to be very high on this trait and some people very low, but the majority of people lie somewhere in the middle. There is little information available on what percentage of people tend to be high, low, or average on this trait.

However, psychologist Robert McCrae, one of the key researchers whose work has contributed to the understanding of the five factors of personality, suggests that openness tends to follow a normal distribution curve, with most people scoring moderately on the trait and a smaller number scoring very high or very low.

McCrae and his colleagues have also found that the five factors tend to vary with age. Although each individual is different, his research suggests that openness to experience peaks around the age of 19. Such findings suggest that while younger people may be more willing to embrace change, this openness to new ideas and experiences may progressively decline as people age.

One study looking at cross-cultural differences in personality traits found that the nation where an individual lived had a statistically significant impact on openness. Results from self-report measures of the Big Five traits found that people from Chile and Belgium rated the highest on openness, while respondents from Japan and Hong Kong ranked the lowest. Regional analysis revealed that East Asia scored lower on openness than all other world regions, while South America scored higher than all other world regions.

A Word From Verywell

Openness can play a role in different areas of life including your creative pursuits, your political ideology, and your attitudes toward sex, among other things. It is important to remember, however, that personality traits such as openness are just one of many factors that shape your life. Personality has been associated with a number of life outcomes including happiness, relationship quality, and job satisfaction, but other factors including circumstances, both situational and societal, also play a critical role.

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