Who Thrives in Confusing Situations?

New research explores the personality types that respond best to confusion.

Posted Nov 11, 2019

Source: Pxhere

Personality psychologists tend to divide personality into five distinct categories: emotional stability, extraversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and openness to experiences. It's this last one, openness to experiences, that seems to draw the most attention

New research forthcoming in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology keeps with this trend. Specifically, a team of researchers led by Kirill Fayn of the Max Planck Insititute in Germany examined whether people who score high on the personality dimension of openness are more likely to respond positively to the emotion of confusion.

"Open people show greater interest in situations that are complex, novel, and difficult to understand—situations that may also be experienced as confusing," state Fayn and his team. "We investigate the possibility that openness/intellect is centrally characterized by more positive relations between interest and confusion."

To test their hypothesis, the researchers recruited 225 people to take part in a short experiment. In their experiment, participants were asked to evaluate 18 works of art. The artworks were of different styles, periods, and themes—some were traditional in nature while others were more abstract. The researchers asked participants to report the degree to which they were interested (1 = not at all, 7 = very much) and confused (1 = not at all, 7 = very much) by the works of art. Participants were also asked to fill out the NEO Five-Factor Personality Inventory, which measured the personality dimensions of emotional stability, extraversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and openness to experiences.

Fayn and his team hypothesized that the more interest a person expressed in a given work of art, the less confusing they would perceive that work of art to be. They based this on the belief that interest and confusion are "oppositional" emotional states. They write, "Interest is an emotion that is [...] thought to motivate engagement and learning. Confusion is also considered an emotion that is experienced in the same contexts as interest, but is a signal of an impasse in information processing that can ultimately lead to greater investment of resources or withdrawal."

Importantly, they also hypothesized that, while the relationship between interest and confusion would be oppositional for most people, certain personality types—specifically, people high in the dimension of openness—would show a positive relationship between interest and confusion. In other words, these types of people would be drawn to things in their environment that evoked confusion.

The results of their experiment partially supported their hypothesis. Although they predicted that interest and confusion would be oppositional (that is, higher degrees of interest would be associated with lower degrees of confusion, and vice versa), they actually found no relationship between interest and confusion. They did, however, find that people high in the personality dimension of openness were significantly more likely to be interested in works of art that evoked a certain degree of confusion.

The researchers replicated this finding in the context of self-selected learning situations as well as in a complex problem-solving task. They conclude, "When people are exposed to novel and complex information, interest and confusion are arguably the most frequent and important states that will determine the quality of the overall experience. [...] The current research suggests that openness/intellect is associated with more positive relations between interest and confusion."

LinkedIn Image Credit: Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock


Fayn, K., Silvia, P. J., Dejonckheere, E., Verdonck, S., & Kuppens, P. (2019). Confused or curious? Openness/intellect predicts more positive interest-confusion relations. Journal of personality and social psychology.