The Boons of an Open Mind

Have you ever wondered what makes some of your friends and relatives so at ease with leading a life characterised by routine and repetition, and others seemingly impossible to pin down? The first frugally carving out their little corner of existence and staying there, and the latter always chasing their latest inclination as rigorously and with as much curiosity as their first clumsy steps into the world. This distinction is conceptualised by psychologists as Openness and is one of Five core factors in the comprehensive “Big Five” model of personality differences. In addition to the openness factor, the big five model is constituted of four additional factors:

  1. Agreeableness; how well a person gets along with and strives to please other people,

  2. Conscientiousness; a person's degree of organisation, structure and determination,

  3. Extraversion; how “outgoing”, lively and attention-seeking a person is in social settings

  4. Neuroticism; determining a person's emotional stability and robustness.

In the following article, you will learn about what these factors of personality are, and what characterises people who score highly on Openness. Furthermore, you will see what changes you can make to open your mind up to new experiences and, hopefully, why openness is a trait you should strive to attain.

Being open-minded is good for you

People with big Openness scores can simply expect more from life. Openness is seen as a predictor for academic and job performance, especially when combined with a strong score on conscientiousness. The Open generally enjoy searching for good creative solutions to problems and the Conscientious have the structure and organisation to make it happen, together these two traits promise great things.

Openness to experience has by some researchers been renamed “intellect”, not because it carries any truly significant correlation with the general measure of intelligence, but because of the affinity that Open people tend to have towards the artistic, fantastic and abstract. Making Open people prime suspects for becoming authors, artists and even researchers.

Being high in openness might lead one to be the first to engage in risk behaviours like drug use, but the tendency to search for new things and their ability to be more in touch with their feelings is seen as an insulator from falling into anti-social groups such as criminals and substance abusers. (The latter two and a whole array of other lame stuff are highly correlated with neuroticism. Don’t be neurotic. Just don’t)

Openness and the Big Five

The “Big five” model of personality is assessed through a 240 question long questionnaire where respondents are asked about their behaviours, attitudes and relations to other people. Being one of five other factors openness is reserved 60 of these questions. People scoring high in openness respond in the affirmative to questions like “I prefer variety to routine”, “I have a vivid imagination”, “I like to get lost in thought”, “I believe in the importance of art”, “I experience my emotions intensely” and (curiously) “I tend to vote for liberal parties” . In other words, the trait as a whole can be summarised as an inclination towards imaginative, adventurous, emotional and liberal behaviour.

It is important to keep in mind that the processes that contribute to the formation of a personality are intertwined almost to the point of indecipherability and that any scientific inquiry on the subject can hope only to identify tendencies on a group level.

The Emergence of Personality

As in many other subjects within the science of modern psychology, the discussion around the development of personality has become a question of nature vs. nurture.

Some argue that personality is determined through our genetic heritage while others see it as the sum of individual experiences over the course of a lifetime. The general consensus, however, is that both are significantly important.

People's personalities are often quite similar to those of their parents. I’m sure you have all heard phrases such as: “Well she sure is feisty, just like her mother”, or “He is such a kind and gentle soul, he must have it from his mother” or, better yet, in the theatre of domestic argument: “You are a lazy, good-for-nothing slob just like your lazy good-for-nothing father”.

This is even more remarkable in identical twins who, even when separated at birth and put in different families, show at times uncanny similarities such as, in one example, both marrying a woman named Susan, smoking Marlboro light and building backyard benches circled around trees of striking similarity. In general identical twins reared apart have a lot more in common personality-wise than adopted children living in the same home. A perhaps disheartening (or liberating) statement for parents thinking that their careful and affectionate child-rearing have shaped their children's personalities. In reality the single most defining aspect of parents contribution to personality is sperm and eggs.

But wait, Jens! You said that the environment does matter! You’re making it sound like no matter what you do your personality is predetermined!

Yes, I did, and it does. Just not in the way one might intuitively think, with parents teaching and modelling the personality of their young. In modern psychology environmental influences have been separated into two categories. Shared environment; the family environment that one shares with siblings, the societal environment that you share with peers and the local milieu, and so on. This is the less important part of environmental influence, the one responsible for adopted siblings tending to be dissimilar in personality. It is, however, important for several other important psychological variables such as intelligence and life satisfaction so child rearing is by no means irrelevant. But for personality it is the unshared environment that seems to have superiority. This is a term that can seem fickle, and sometimes separating unshared from shared is quite difficult, but basically it refers to individual experiences within the social milieu. The friends we choose, early choices we make, the successes and failures, subjective experience of parental interactions and so on.

I have myself taken a few tests designed to measure personality, (not the official one because it is outrageously expensive) and I consistently score high or very high on the openness factor. I come from two parents that can probably both be considered open-minded, but they had their apprehensions when I said that I wanted to go to a music high school instead of just running the usual curriculum with natural science classes. I believe this choice, and the fun, open-minded people I met as a consequence had a profound effect on my personality tipping me further towards openness, and perhaps, further away from conscientiousness (this article, like a lot of stuff in my life, has taken me ages to finish). This is, for me, an example of how an already existing biologically preprogrammed tendency can be exaggerated through choices we make. Some paths may to a certain degree lie latent in our genetics, but whether we work toward or against these tendencies is up to us, and from the sum of these choices our true personalities emerge.

Opening up

If it comes down to shaping a personality towards openness there are a number of factors known to facilitate such an increase. Travel is one of them.

A study conducted on german students who had taken a semester or an academic year abroad showed a marked increase in their levels of Openness and Agreeableness compared to that of their stay-at-home peers. This shows that just the act of travelling and putting oneself in a different cultural context can make a lasting effect in one's personality. In the study, already being quite open-minded, with complementing high scores in Agreeableness and Conscientiousness was a predictor for choosing to leave at all, but, initial scores aside, the vast majority of the travelers enjoyed a marked increase in their Openness scores. (Zimmerman; Neyer, 2013)

After high School, I spent a year living in France because I was appalled at having spent 6 years in french classes barely learning more than how to conjugate “I am” and “I have” (an accomplishment for which I earned the equivalent of a grade B). My frustrations over the educational system will be saved for another article. But if you are interested in knowing how language SHOULD be taught there is a great article on language learning by Magnus Lomax Bjerke here on Agile Existence.

I also felt an urge to experience something other than the protected cradle that had been my suburban childhood. But I was not prepared for the shock. It’s hard going out making friends when you don’t know the language and cultural nuances. Even just going down to the grocery store was an immense challenge at first. But I channeled and trained my openness, and called upon what little conscientiousness I had and I went to that party, and the next, and the next. Often barely speaking to anyone. But as the first few months passed by I became part of an international community at the university wherein was a whole bunch of initially strange, but later simply refreshing personalities. I joined a french speaking theatre class and was generally barraged with new experiences. I could practically feel my mind opening up and by the second semester I was near fluent in french, had moved in with a french buddy and made a bunch of new friends.

While travelling is a great option in the way it almost forces you to take in new experiences, there are numerous small changes to your daily life that can, with time change your personality towards openness. Studies have shown that people engaging in activities that stimulate the imagination such as music, theatre, writing or just reading a good book tend to score higher on Openness. Many such activities come with a social milieu with other people of high openness that will pull on your personality. Every social interaction can be seen as an exchange of personality, and studies confirm this by showing that people living together for a long time, like romantic partners, tend to gradually become more similar. So as you hang out with open-minded people you are likely to subconsciously emulate their personalities and become more open-minded yourself.

Stagnation & Plasticity

Up until recently it was a commonly held belief among psychologists that personality becomes rigid and unchanging after having reached adulthood. Except for a few universal tendencies of people becoming more conscientious and agreeable and less neurotic, extraverted and open as they progress through their lives. Recently, however, this has been challenged by studies proving that there is room for personality plasticity, even into old age. In a german study a group of elderly people were measured before and after being encouraged to participate in a local volunteer program. The participants showed a sizeable increase in openness proving that there is room for personality change even in the oldest among us. ( Muhlig-Versen, Bowen, Staudinger, 2012)

I believe that the reason that personality is believed to be stable after a certain age is much due to the tendency for people to stagnate and get very comfortable with the way they lead their lives. And as you surround yourself with the same people, engaging in the same activities few challenges to your personality emerge and thus you stay the same. As for openness it requires new experiences to stay stable, and as you stop engaging in new, challenging experiences, your appreciation of them also fades, explaining why this trait tends to decrease as people age.

Openness - Do we need it?

My answer to this question is a loud YES. As already stated openness is seen as a predictor for all manners of good life outcomes. Artistic, academic and professional performance are all seen as predicted by the trait, proving it as one of the fundamental prerequisites for true creativity. And creativity is becoming increasingly important in our fast paced world. Being open has probably always been good, but I think that it is even more important today. In our fast paced and changing world promoting Openness can be a powerful force as ordinary people are faced with a demographic irking its way towards great cultural diversity and fast paced technological advancement. These societal vectors seem to be ever gaining in force and if the population as a whole is too close minded it can be, and probably is, a source of great tension and conflict in our societies. The open-minded, however, is more robust to these changes. Rather than feeling threatened and scared when he sees that in his neighbourhood there are people with different skin colour, clothes and language he is intrigued and welcomes it as a new experience. When he hears about a new technological advance he enthusiastically asks “how can this be put to good use?” rather than muttering under his breath how much better things were in the good old days.

All that aside, being open to new experiences is in of itself is a source of perpetual enjoyment. I have been a little intimidated by the fact that I am now “stuck” in Bergen, Norway for 5 years to finish my degree in psychology, but i’m discovering more and more how, even while remaining stationary, my love for new experiences can be satisfied. Just by being receptive and keeping one’s head up all those little changes to the routine can be very satisfying and developing as a person. Whether it’s delving head first into a new, exciting subject at school, joining a student community project that I initially thought might not be for me, or just striving to make a new dish for dinner every Saturday.

Through the sum of all these little novelties my Openness is fostered, and stagnation is kept at bay. We are given a template at birth, a sketch of who we might be, but it’s through all these little choices that we become and, if we remain open we can keep becoming until the end of our days. That is, for me, a source of great hope and happiness and I believe it is one of the keys to understanding ourselves, our friends and achieving the agile existence.


“Personality plasticity in later adulthood: Contextual and personal resources are needed to increase openness to new experiences”. Mühlig-Versen, Andrea; Bowen, Catherine E Staudinger, Ursula M. Psychology and Aging, Vol 27(4), Dec 2012, 855-866.
“Do we become a different person when hitting the road? Personality development of sojourners.” Zimmermann, Julia ;Neyer, Franz J. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 105(3), Sep 2013, 515-530.