What Is Openness to Experience & How Do We Measure It?

Openness to ExperienceIf last night’s dream helped you solve a problem, it could indicate that you are high in the personality disposition of openness (Larsen, Buss, Wismeijer, & Song, 2017).

It doesn’t stop there. Being more open is linked to a willingness to explore new experiences, including foods, hobbies, and other cultures. And when we behave in line with our self-reported degree of openness, we feel more authentic, which contributes to our wellbeing (Ryan & Deci, 2018).

Thankfully, despite being a personality trait influenced by genetic factors, openness is far from fixed (Jarrett, 2021). In this article, we explore what this trait means and how it can be fostered.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Strengths Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will help your clients realize their unique potential and create a life that feels energizing and authentic.

What Is Openness to Experience?

While the Big Five view of personality factors has its critics, it is the model of choice for most psychologists interested in individual personality differences (Workman & Reader, 2015).

The Big Five model breaks down personality into five factors or traits: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (Workman & Reader, 2015).

Evolutionary psychologist David Buss (2016) argues that this particular breakdown of personality factors represents the most evolutionarily plausible model. Furthermore, it suggests how motivational forces are likely to have benefited humans in various environments throughout evolutionary history.

High scorers in each of the five personality and character traits are likely to exhibit behavior similar to the following (Workman & Reader, 2015):

  • Openness to experience: more curious and adventurous
  • Conscientiousness: a higher degree of self-discipline and goal-directed behavior
  • Extraversion: more likely to seek out extra stimulation, including social situations
  • Agreeableness: more compassionate, cooperative, and sympathetic
  • Neuroticism: typically, more prone to anger, anxiety, depression, and other negative emotions

 

Openness to experience

“The disposition of openness has been linked to experimentation” in our tastes, interests, and even relationships (Larsen et al., 2017, p. 71). And some suggest that our degree of openness to experience may be associated with how we process information.

Someone high in openness may find it more challenging to ignore previously experienced stimuli. Processing gates may, literally, be more open. At the same time, someone lower on the scale may adopt a narrow, ‘tunnel’ view and restrict stimuli competing for their attention (Larsen et al., 2017).

A higher degree of “openness to experience suggests the extent of an individual’s complexity regarding both experiential and mental life,” including greater creativity, inventiveness, flexible thinking, and unconventionality (Sutton, 2019, p. 45).

Jarrett (2021, p. 20) points out that to people high in openness, those who score low may “seem boring or boorish,” while to low-openness people, high scorers may appear “dreamy, high-minded, and pretentious, overly keen to advertise their individuality.”

While these are most likely stereotypes, they ask some interesting questions regarding how we perceive individual differences in personality.

And it’s important. While openness is not the same as intelligence, the scores correlate, and openness reveals itself in our attitudes, political and otherwise. High scorers are less inclined to organized religion and yet are liberal and may seek out spirituality. They are also less morally superior, and rather than seeing things in black-and-white terms, recognize that questions do not always have straightforward answers (Jarrett, 2021).

 

Openness is not fixed

While openness (along with the rest of our personality) is relatively stable, with women being more consistent than men, it is least changeable between 40 and 60 years of age (Larsen et al., 2017).

Despite the high degree of consistency, we have the power to change our degree of openness, primarily by introducing ourselves to new experiences, ideas, and thinking throughout our lives (Jarrett, 2021).

 

Big Five Personality Test Explained

Personality TestThe Big Five Personality Inventory is the most widely used and strongly validated measure of openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (Sutton, 2019; Kaiseler, Polman, & Nicholls, 2012).

The 44-item inventory measures each of the Big Five dimensions of personality on a five-point scale. Individuals completing the inventory are asked to rate statements, including the following, between 1 (“disagree strongly”) and 5 (“agree strongly”; Sutton, 2019):

I am a person who:

  • ___ is talkative
  • ___ is depressed, blue
  • ___ can be somewhat careless
  • ___ has a forgiving nature
  • ___ is outgoing, sociable
  • ___ gets nervous easily
  • ___ likes to reflect, play with ideas
  • ___ is easily distracted
  • ___ is emotionally stable, not easily upset
  • ___ is considerate and kind to almost everyone

The answers, some of which are reverse-scored, calculate scores for each of the five factors, including openness.

 

5 Different Facets of the Trait

There are many valuable facets to the personality trait of openness and its impact on how we interact with our environment.

Several are briefly introduced below.

 

Perception

Recent research suggests that being more open changes how we perceive and engage with the world. While researching how each eye provides a competing version of the same image, scientists found that individuals high in openness were better able to see the two patterns as merged (Jarrett, 2021).

 

Presentation and perception

“Openness is manifested in daily living and interpersonal interactions and how others perceive these cues” (McCrae & Sutin, 2009, p. 259). We can recognize open individuals by the way they need variety in life and how they express their creativity and intellectual curiosity. They tend to use first-person pronouns and are more likely to be found in coffee shops and restaurants (McCrae & Sutin, 2009).

 

Family life

Personality (openness in particular) at least partly shapes romantic relationships. Individuals open to new experiences are more likely to choose partners who feel the same way. And this is no surprise; openness influences critical life decisions, including our political stance and religious and educational choices (McCrae & Sutin, 2009).

Interestingly, couples where both partners are high in openness often have more satisfying and well-adjusted marriages (McCrae & Sutin, 2009).

 

Strangers and friends

As they do with romantic relationships, open people tend to have friends with similar interests and attitudes, intellectually, politically, and spiritually. Open individuals can find themselves bored by the predictable and undemanding intellectual outlook of people who score low on openness (McCrae & Sutin, 2009).

When strong relationships form, open people are more capable of providing emotional support but less able to offer concrete solutions than less open people (McCrae & Sutin, 2009).

 

Reduced mortality risk

Research suggests openness and other associated constructs, such as intelligence and academic achievement, offer a degree of protection from the risk of death and benefit our wellbeing.

Turiano, Spiro, and Mroczek (2012) found that over an 18-year period, a higher degree of creativity led to a reduced risk of dying.

 

Real-Life Example of Openness

The Book of JoyOpenness to experience can present itself in many ways.

An individual may be open to new scientific theories, trying out unusual pastimes, and meeting people from different backgrounds.

The following individuals come from very different social backgrounds and hold distinct religious beliefs. And yet, through the power of openness, they have a strong mutual respect and an honest and engaging friendship.

In The Book of Joy, the most revered figure in Buddhism and a highly respected archbishop in the Christian church show an exceptionally high degree of openness and acceptance of one another’s radically different beliefs (Dalai Lama, Tutu, & Abrams, 2016).

In 2015, Archbishop Desmond Tutu visited the Dalai Lama’s home in exile in Dharamsala, India, to celebrate his 80th birthday. When Douglas Abrams was invited to join them for lunch, he found two charming, mischievous men who just happened to command the respect of millions of religious followers worldwide.

While to some degree in awe of these powerful men, Abrams was struck most by their compassion, humor, and degree of openness. He became strongly aware that despite very different spiritual backgrounds, they welcomed challenge and open and authentic dialogue (Dalai Lama et al., 2016).

When describing a special kind of generosity – that of the spirit – the Archbishop and the Dalai Lama (2016, p. 274) said, “we are less burdened by our self-agenda” and that they engage in “less pretension and more openness, more honesty.”

 

Fascinating Psychology Findings

Research has led to some fascinating findings regarding our openness to experience.

Those high in openness to experience tend to show the following characteristics (modified from Larsen et al., 2017; Sutton, 2019; Jarrett, 2021):

  • Less likely to stereotype or prejudice against minority groups
  • More likely to get body piercings and tattoos
  • More likely to experiment with new foods
  • More likely to enjoy novel experiences
  • More open to extramarital affairs and alternative sex partners
  • Tend to vote center-left (findings for Italy, Spain, Poland, and Germany)
  • Use more problem-focused coping strategies rather than emotion or avoidance-focused, especially in sports
  • More readily undertake challenging and arduous activities and events
  • More spiritual but less involved in organized religion
  • More ready to change their opinions based on new facts

It is important to note that these are statistical correlations between openness and specific behavior; they imply no certainty or expectation. Awareness of a personality trait is insufficient to accurately predict how someone will behave throughout their life.

 

Openness to experience and intelligence

Considerable research has been performed to understand the connection between personality traits and intelligence.

Most studies agree that openness is related to intelligence, especially creativity, yet it remains unclear which comes first. Being open to new experiences is likely to stimulate learning and intellectual development, while increased intelligence may lead us to seek out new opportunities (Harris, 2004; DeYoung, Quilty, Peterson, & Gray, 2013).

 

Leadership and openness to experience

Openness in leadership is vital to creativity. Such leaders are likely to be more curious and imaginative, accepting new ideas and absorbing novel information. Openness to experience is seen as having a positive effect on knowledge-exchanging behaviors, accelerating the speed of sharing and learning essential for team growth and development (Zhang, Sun, Jiang, & Zhang, 2019).

 

How to Foster Openness: 7 Tips

Foster openness“The most obvious approaches to increasing your trait openness are likely to be the most effective” (Jarrett, 2021, p. 141).

Several essential behaviors, outlooks, and approaches can lead to increases in openness (Jarrett, 2021).

Here are a few examples to try:

  • Spend more time on cultural activities.
    Music, concerts, shows, and art exhibitions, especially when exploring new tastes and styles, can help open the mind.

  • Open up to new hobbies, sports, and activities.
    Be experimental. Why not start playing a new instrument, learn a different language, begin an art course, or learn to code?

  • Engage in mental challenges.
    Find puzzles (such as crosswords and sudoku) involving new strategies, complicated approaches, and inductive reasoning (learning to draw conclusions).

  • Build confidence.
    Being open to the new and different requires the confidence to consider alternative perspectives. Take small social risks on the path to something bigger or seek support from a friend to try something new.

  • Revisit your past.
    Surprisingly, going through old photos and reminiscing with friends has been linked to increased creativity, self-esteem, and openness.

  • Regularly exercise.
    Along with the many other benefits to physical and mental wellbeing, being more active appears to maintain openness into old age. The benefits may come from increased confidence and a willingness to try new things.

  • Become awestruck.
    Adopting the outlook of a child or a visitor, as though we are seeing things for the first time, can boost intellectual humility. Why not go out for a walk (even a route that you regularly take) and appreciate the beauty of the trees, grass, and sky with fresh eyes?

 

More Relevant Scales, Tests, & Questionnaires

There are many personality tests available that can offer insight into the degree of openness of your clients or yourself.

While the Big Five Personality Inventory is often favored in research, others (many of which are based around the Five-Factor model of personality) are well suited to personal and commercial use.

We have included three of our favorite tests that include openness below:

  • Online personality test provider Truity offers several tests based on the Big Five. While there is a general 300-question personality test, there is also a dedicated test to help you measure your degree of openness.

  • The Open-Source Psychometrics Project offers a free Big Five test that will offer insight into your degree of openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

  • Big Five Test is another open-source project (under license from Massachusetts Institute of Technology) that provides scores for each of the five domains and identifies how you differ from other people.

While many other tests are available, care must be taken due to their lack of grounding in personality theory.

 

Resources From PositivePsychology.com

We have many resources that can help your clients strengthen awareness of their personality traits and develop a more open, growth mindset.

To help, check out the following free worksheets from our blog to inspire open-mindedness and overcome barriers to new experiences:

  • Adopt A Growth Mindset
    This exercise helps clients recognize instances of fixed mindset in their thinking and actions and replace them with thoughts and behaviors more supportive of a growth mindset.

  • Drawing Your Fears
    This exercise invites a child to describe a situation that is causing them to worry and draw different scenarios regarding the outcome of that situation.

  • Neutralizing Judgmental Thoughts
    This exercise helps clients recognize judgmental thoughts and “should” viewpoints and replace them with less critical alternatives.

  • 17 Strength-Finding Exercises
    If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others develop their strengths, check out this collection of 17 strength-finding tools for practitioners. Use them to help others better understand and harness their strengths in life-enhancing ways.

 

A Take-Home Message

Openness is one of the most exciting of the Big Five personality traits due to its strong association with growth. Becoming more open to experience engages every aspect of our lives, including education, relationships, careers, spiritual, scientific knowledge, and even our role as parents.

Becoming open to experience involves accepting who we are, the opportunities available, and the potential to develop. While we inherit aspects of our personality, there is still a lifelong potential to expand our degree of openness. As a result, we can live a more fulfilling life while benefiting our psychological and physiological wellbeing.

There are also tests available to assess the Big Five traits. They provide feedback regarding your degree of openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Use them to identify how open you are to experiences and your opportunities and capacity for growth.

Why not seek out (for yourself or to help your client) such opportunities, developing in new ways, and experiencing different foods, music, books, cultures, and ideas? Behaving in line with your higher degree of openness can leave you feeling more authentic, motivated, and better engaged in everyday life.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Strengths Exercises for free.

  • Buss, D. M. (2016). Evolutionary psychology: The new science of the mind. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
  • Dalai Lama, Tutu, D., & Abrams, D. (2016). Book of joy: Lasting happiness in a changing world. Hutchinson.
  • DeYoung, C. G., Quilty, L. C., Peterson, J. B., & Gray, J. R. (2013). Openness to experience, intellect, and cognitive ability. Journal of Personality Assessment, 96(1), 46–52.
  • Harris, J. A. (2004). Measured intelligence, achievement, openness to experience, and creativity. Personality and Individual Differences, 36(4), 913–929.
  • Jarrett, C. (2021). Be who you want: Unlocking the science of personality change. Robinson.
  • Kaiseler, M., Polman, R. C. J., & Nicholls, A. R. (2012). Effects of the Big Five personality dimensions on appraisal coping, and coping effectiveness in sport. European Journal of Sport Science, 12(1), 62–72.
  • Larsen, R., Buss, D., Wismeijer, A., & Song, J. (2017). Personality psychology: Domains of knowledge about human nature. McGraw-Hill Education.
  • McCrae, R. R., & Sutin, A. R. (2009). Openness to experience. In M. R. Leary & R. H. Hoyle (Eds.), Handbook of individual differences in social behavior (pp. 257–273). Guilford Press.
  • Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2018). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. Guilford Press.
  • Sutton, J. (2019). Psychological and physiological factors that affect success in ultra-marathoners (Doctoral thesis, Ulster University). Retrieved September 16, 2021, from https://pure.ulster.ac.uk/en/studentTheses/psychological-and-physiological-factors-that-affect-success-in-ul
  • Turiano, N. A., Spiro, A., & Mroczek, D. K. (2012). Openness to experience and mortality in men. Journal of Aging and Health, 24(4), 654–672.
  • Workman, L., & Reader, W. (2015). Evolutionary psychology: An introduction. Cambridge University Press.
  • Zhang, W., Sun, S. L., Jiang, Y., & Zhang, W. (2019). Openness to experience and team creativity: Effects of knowledge sharing and transformational leadership. Creativity Research Journal, 31(1), 62–73.

About the Author

Jeremy Sutton, Ph.D., is a writer and researcher studying the human capacity to push physical and mental limits. His work always remains true to the science beneath, his real-world background in technology, his role as a husband and parent, and his passion as an ultra-marathoner.

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