If your friends were to describe you, what would they say? Would they say that you are open to new experiences? Would they say you are creative? Or would they say that you are more conservative, or set in your ways?
We’re going to zoom in on that one dimension: openness, or openness to experience. This is one out of five dimensions that make up the Big Five Personality Theory. Let’s talk about this theory, how openness fits into it, and whether or not you have a high level of openness to experience.
What is Openness to Experience?
To put it simply, it means the person is open-minded. They aren’t afraid to think outside the box or consider possibilities outside of what they already know. Abstract, new, or different ideas do not intimidate them. We often associate openness to experience with curiosity, creativity, or flexibility.
Of course, this is just one way that a person could describe you. Personality psychologists would say that this is just one dimension of a person’s personality.
About the Big Five
We’ll start by talking about this larger theory of personality: the Big Five. The Big Five, also known as the Five-Factor Model, is the latest iteration of personality theory. In the past, personality psychologists have looked for a set number of traits that they can use to describe or study a person’s personality. Past popular theories have named as little as three traits and as many as 4,000. The Big Five has been the main theory since around the 1980s.
This theory identifies five traits that can be universally used to describe personality. Openness to experience is just one of these five traits. The other four are:
Now, you probably know someone who isn’t very extroverted or isn’t very open to experience. Don’t worry. That person still has a personality! These five traits exist on a spectrum - they are five dimensions of a person’s personality. Personality psychologists believe that personality exists between one of two extremes. They might be very open to experience or they are incredibly close-minded. Or, a person may be somewhere in the middle.
High Openness to Experience
A person with high openness to experience gets excited by new ideas. In fact, they are likely to seek out these ideas. They are always trying to widen their perspective and get a larger view of what the world looks like outside of their own bubble. Typically, this larger view of the world increases a person’s intelligence. Using knowledge from their broad range of interests and wide perspective, they are able to solve problems easily. Someone with high openness to experience is likely to question what they know, play with creative or abstract ideas, and welcome concepts that are far outside of their “comfort zone.” Comfort zones are much larger and flexible to someone with high openness to experience.
In general, progressive political agendas are favorable to people with a high openness of experience. Just because something is rooted in tradition does not mean it is necessarily the best idea for them as individuals, their family, town, or even country.
High Openness to Experience Examples
Outside of politics, a person with high openness to experience is likely to try new foods, activities, or creative endeavors. A spiritual retreat, a year-long backpacking trip across a new continent, or a bizarre art show all sound like great ideas to someone who is very open to new experiences. Sure, they might not always agree with the perspective of the artist or end up liking the experience, but they are willing to try everything once!
Low Openness to Experience
On the other hand, a person with low openness to experience may find new, abstract, or different experiences unfavorable. Maybe they are intimidated by these experiences or they simply do not want to let these new experiences into their life. They aren’t going to go out of their way to try the new restaurant that just opened - they have a favorite meal at their favorite restaurant and they don’t see the point in changing things up.
Not only do they dislike change, but a person with low openness to experience may actively resist it. When it comes to politics, a person with low openness to experience may grow up voting for the same party for their whole lives. They are happy to continue traditions. New forms of government or new political philosophies are not likely to get through to them or change the way they view certain issues or ways of doing things.
Is Openness to Experiences Good or Bad?
It’s important to note that it’s not good or bad to have a high or low openness to experience. These are two extremes. A person with a lower openness to experience may feel more comfortable in their comfort zone, but may not judge another person with a different perspective and lifestyle. Other personality traits, including conscientiousness and agreeableness, also influence how a person seeks out, processes, and acts on new information and experiences.
Examples of Openness to Experiences
Based on the description of these two extremes, you may know where on the spectrum you fall. If you like to change up where you go on vacations or adventures every year, you’re likely to have a high openness to experience. If you prefer to go on the same trip and eat at the same restaurant, you’re likely to have low openness to experience. Take a look at the following phrases and see if you agree:
- Every new experience is a gift and should be embraced.
- I am always looking to try something that I’ve never experienced before.
- Philosophical discussions, especially with people I don’t agree with, interest me.
- I like to think about abstract ideas.
- New challenges excite me.
- Adventurous vacations are more fun than relaxing ones.
- Traditions should be questioned.
- I tend to be more progressive than conservative.
- My imagination is always running!
- I love creative and artistic hobbies or activities.
If you agree with at least half of these statements, then you are on the higher side of openness to experience.
Are These Personality Traits Fixed?
Can you become more open to experience? Can you reel it in and stick to what you know? The answer is yes and no. In addition to understanding traits that can be used to universally describe people, personality psychologists have tried to understand where our personality comes from. Is it nature or nurture? How much of our personality is shaped by our culture and upbringing? What role does genetics play?
There is a lot of evidence that suggests there is a mix of both nature and nurture in the formation of our personalities. Based on studies conducted by psychologists, our genes have around a 57% influence on our ability to be open to experiences. But 57% is certainly not 100%. The way that we were raised to welcome new ideas may have an influence on how we welcome them in as an adult. If we were encouraged to question the norms and seek out new experiences, this might be a comfortable process for us. Success in tradition and routine may, over time, close us off to anything that threatens what we already have.
How to Improve Openness to Experiences
If you are looking to become more open to new experiences, there is no better time to start than today! Be mindful of the choices that you make throughout the day. Are you watching a television show because it looks new and exciting, or because you’ve seen it before and feel comfortable with it? Are you watching a certain news channel because they agree with you or because you want to get a more well-rounded perspective on certain issues in politics or entertainment?
If you find yourself nervous about trying something new, start small. Order from a new restaurant. Read a book from an author you’ve never heard of. Attend a meetup or take a class with a bunch of strangers. Do not go into the new experience with any preconceived notions - they’ll only shape how you see the experience and how you feel when you walk away.
As you try something new, continue to question your judgment. Are you actively looking for flaws or excuses to not like the experience? Why might you see the experience differently than someone else? What previous experiences or perspectives may lead someone to see the experience in a more favorable light?
This work can be tiresome at first, so that’s why it’s good to start with small changes to your routine. Trying a new restaurant isn’t going to ruin your year or completely change your life. The worst that can happen is that you don’t love the experience and you can try something else. This is what openness is all about - letting the experiences shape themselves and continuing to try out something until you find what you like or learn something new.