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The value of being open to new experiences (but not too open).

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The search for novelty is one of our basic motivations. Psychologists have long known that monkeys find it rewarding to explore their environments. However, not everyone is a “Curious George.” Some of us are more likely than others to seek out new experiences, or at least to contemplate the possibility.

One of the basic five personality traits, openness to experience incorporates, according to University of Toronto psychologist Brian Connelly and co-authors (2014), a “general receptiveness to variety of experience and a permeability in consciousness” (p. 1). Its history in psychology dates back to the mid-1900s, but it wasn’t entirely refined until Costa and McCrae developed the NEO-PI-R personality measure through which it could be precisely measured.

Connelly and his team reflected on the importance of openness to experience in a special issue of the Journal of Personality Assessment focused on the trait and its measurement. I will try to sum up their observations in a way that will help you gain insight into where you stand on this dimension—and how you can attain the ideal balance between too much and too little personality openness.

First, let’s look at the components within this dimension. Costa and McCrae measure one's openness along these 6 facets, in which you’re asked to indicate your openness to ideas, actions, feelings, values, fantasy and aesthetics:

  1. Openness to ideas. Do you like a mental challenge? Rather than reading only popular novels, do you enjoy dabbling in philosophy at least once in a while? Are you open to ideas, or do you like to play word games, learn new words, and solve problems just for the sake of keeping your mind active?
  2. Openness to actions. Are you willing to try new things or do you prefer the same-old/same-old? If you’re high on this openness facet, you’re willing to try new foods, visit new places, and perhaps you're always ready to check out the latest technology. You like to start new projects and have lots of interests.
  3. Openness to feelings. At any given moment, can you identify whether you’re happy, sad, or afraid? Do you find it easy to read the emotions of others? People high on openness to feelings are receptive to their own feelings and those of others. If you’re open to feelings, you’re both passionate and compassionate. You get worked up about causes you believe in and understand that other people do as well.
  4. Openness to values. Do you think that there is only one "right" way to live? Should anyone who commits a crime be punished, or do you think that criminals can be rehabilitated? If you’re open to values, you’re able to see that life is full of gray areas. You also appreciate that other people’s views have validity and are willing to learn from them.
  5. Openness to fantasy. Do enjoy imagining possibilities that don’t yet exist? Are you prone to daydreaming? Being willing to engage in mental flights of fancy suggests that you’re high on this openness trait. You like to turn new ideas over in your mind and even if you don’t act on them, you enjoy thinking about them.
  6. Openness to aesthetics. If you’ve got free time, would you rather go to a concert or art museum or would you prefer to “veg out”? Is gardening or taking care of indoor plants one of your favorite pastimes? Being open to aesthetics doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re artistically inclined, but it does mean that you like taking in art in its many forms.

Now that you can evaluate whether you’re high or not on openness to experience, let’s see what it means if you are, or are not. It’s also possible that you’re high on one of the facets, but not others.

In a practical sense, being high on personality openness can give you advantages over people who are relatively closed-minded. Perhaps you’ve got a chronic condition, such as backache or headache. You’ve tried every remedy that conventional medicine can offer. If you’re open to experiences (ideas and actions), you decide to do some exploring on your own and find that your condition might be treatable by acupuncture. Although you’ve never tried it before, and are a pretty strong believer in Western medicine, you figure it’s worth checking out.

Now, pushing your openness even further, you seek consultation from an acupuncturist who suggests that this treatment could help you. This stretches your mental openness even further, but you decide you’ve got nothing to lose. After a few sessions, you’re feeling much better and have only your openness to thank for giving you the imagination to consider an alternative to the traditional approaches you’ve taken in the past.

Similarly, openness to aesthetics can enrich your daily life by giving you ways to brighten up otherwise drab days. It may be cold and snowy outside, but your indoor flowers are providing you with colorful and pleasing colors to enjoy. The music you like to have playing in the background during dinner provides a pleasant backdrop to your takeout meal.

According to the paper by Connelly and his associates, there are many psychological benefits to being high on the openness dimension of personality. Although they focus on the technical aspects of defining and measuring this important quality, the research team explored its relationship to other indicators of psychological functioning. These include creativity, interest in nature, and a desire to help others through careers in teaching and social services.

Being open to new ideas and having imagination allows people to capitalize on their actual intellectual abilities. The more open to experience you are, the more likely you are to adapt well to growing older. By keeping your mind active with new problems to solve, you’ll be giving it the kind of mental workout it needs to stay vital.

The evidence suggests that people who are highly open to experience may not earn higher salaries, Connelly and his team conclude. However, people in more artistically-oriented jobs will perform better, as will those in jobs that require investigative skills. The data are also unclear about whether the highly open have better relationships, but others readily detect their interpersonal sensitivity.

You can, of course, be too open. If your flights of fancy frequently take you into off into another dimension of time and space, you can lose touch with reality. If you are constantly open to new interests, you may never be able to settle on one life path.

However, on the whole, Connelly and his co-authors conclude:

“Openness represents some of the more important and interesting traits and processes within personality psychology” (p. 13).

Allow your own openness to thrive, and you may find new sources of fulfillment that you never knew were possible.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015


Connelly, B.S., Ones, D.S. & Chernyshenko, O.S. (2014) Introducing the Special Sectionon Openness to Experience: Review of Openness Taxonomies, Measurement, and Nomological Net, Journal of Personality Assessment, 96:1, 1-16, DOI: 10.1080/00223891.2013.830620