Openness: The Big Five Personality Types Explained

From a lecture series presented by Professor Mark Leary, Ph.D.

The trait of openness involves the degree to which people are generally open or receptive to all sorts of things. We’re not talking about interpersonal openness—being open in how you interact with other people—but rather an intellectual and experiential openness or receptivity to new things.

This is the sixth article in a series about the big five personality types. You might prefer to start with the first post: The Science Behind the Five Major Personality Types

Openness to Experience

Openness, as it applies to this trait should be interpreted as something like receptivity, as in the sense of being open to trying a new experience or being receptive to a new idea.

Now we come to the fifth and final trait of the big five: openness. Or sometimes researchers call it “openness to experience.” The term, openness, as it applies to this trait should be interpreted as something like receptivity, as in the sense of being open to trying a new experience or being receptive to a new idea. People who score high in openness are more intellectually curious and imaginative than people who score low, which reflects an openness to new ideas.

Open people are less dogmatic and more intellectually humble. They hold their beliefs less strongly, and they’re open to considering new ideas and thinking about the world in new ways. They also enjoy trying new things. They show an openness to novel experiences. They’re also more flexible in their behavior. They’re willing to try new ways of doing things, and they’re less concerned about doing things a certain way just because we’ve always done them that way. As a result of being open to new ideas, experiences, and ways of doing things, people who are high in openness live somewhat less traditional and conventional lives. They don’t feel a strong need to conform to social expectations.

Learn more: Are You Agreeable? Conscientious? Open?

People who are low in openness show less of each of these tendencies. They’re less inherently curious, they’re more certain that their personal beliefs are correct, they usually don’t like to try new things just for the sake of having a new experience, they tend to be more conventional, and they’re more set in their ways.

image of adults in mud obstacle for article on Openness

Which Are You—More Open Minded or Less?

Because openness is normally distributed, most of us show a mixture of these characteristics: we like a certain amount of novelty but not too much, we’ll try new things now and then, we’re dogmatic about some of our beliefs but open about others, and so on. But many of us fall toward one extreme or the other, and here’s how to tell: When I described people who are high versus low in openness a moment ago, did you view one of them as more desirable than the other?

Some of you thought that curiosity, imagination, trying new things, holding your beliefs tentatively, and being open to new ideas are great things, a sign of psychological maturity. And you thought that my description of the less open person—closed-minded, conventional, not as curious—sounded much less desirable.

But others of you thought that the open person sounded sort of flakey, wishy-washy, capricious, and maybe even unstable, whereas less open people seemed grounded and trustworthy and certain of what they believe. Your reaction should tell you which way you lean. Open people admire openness, less open people find high openness a little troubling.

Like Attracts Like

Openness seems to be beneficial in people’s relationships. Because openness involves a willingness to consider that one might be wrong along with being open to other views and tolerating differences of opinion.

Research shows that people tend to gravitate to friendships and romantic relationships with people who have roughly the same level of openness as they do.

This effect is not strong compared to many other things that bring people together, but studies show that when it comes to openness, birds of a feather do tend to flock together. And openness seems to be beneficial in people’s relationships. Because openness involves a willingness to consider that one might be wrong and being open to other views, people who are more open tolerate differences of opinion better than those who are less open.

So, open people have fewer conflicts with other people than less open people do. Studies have also shown that people who are high in openness, like those who are high in agreeableness, are less likely to be prejudiced. Because they are more open to different cultures, belief systems, ideas, and kinds of people, people who are high in openness tend to be less prejudiced than people low in openness. In light of all of this, it’s not surprising that open people tend to report that their relationships with other people are more satisfying. They tend to get along with people better, and other people tend to like them more.

For people who have children, openness is also related to their parenting styles. Given what I’ve said about openness, you can probably imagine how parents who are low and high in openness differ in raising their kids. Parents who are low in openness emphasize unquestioning obedience and deference to the parent’s authority. They expect their children to follow their rules, and they don’t tolerate the child’s objections.

Parents who are higher in openness are more willing to listen to the child’s perspective and more tolerant of behavior that isn’t exactly what the parent had wanted. In fact, open parents sometimes actively encourage their children to express their opinions and even to disagree with them. Interestingly, open parents are less likely to report that their children’s misbehavior is a major source of stress in daily life. What’s not clear, though, is whether open parents actually have more well-behaved kids, or whether they are open to a broader range of behavior in their children so that they don’t view as many behaviors as bad.

Learn more: Basic Motives Underlying Behavior

Also More Open to Your Surroundings

Finally, people who score higher in openness tend to enjoy aesthetic experiences more than people who are lower in openness. They’re higher in what researchers call “aesthetic sensitivity.” People higher in openness enjoy sensory experiences such as art and music and beautiful scenery more than people low in openness do, and they report feeling more absorbed and more emotionally moved by these kinds of experiences. They even report that they get chills or goosebumps more often when they see beautiful things or hear beautiful music.

One study looked at people’s reactions to viewing photographs of deep space like those amazing images of distant stars and galaxies taken by the Hubble telescope. Participants’ scores on a measure of openness were correlated with how profound they said the experience was. People higher in openness rated the images as more amazing, more awe-inspiring, more moving, more beautiful. People lower in openness rated them less amazing and beautiful, and as more boring.

Another study found similar effects on people’s reactions to a piece of expressive music. In both studies, people who were higher in openness were more likely to say that they had goosebumps or chills during the study. So, there’s something about openness that relates to how people experience what they see and hear.

Wrapping It All Up

These 5 traits—extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientious, and openness—are the most important traits that account for why people are different from each other. I should mention that you can see these same traits in the personalities of certain other animals. For example, when researchers have studied the personalities of dogs and of chimpanzees, they find the same 5 traits, plus one more.

Learn more: What Is Personality?

Think of the dogs that you have known. Some were more extraverted—more sociable, outgoing, and active—than others. Some were emotionally stable, whereas others seemed more neurotic. Some dogs are agreeable and friendly, and some are disagreeable, if not downright vicious.

You have probably known dogs that were very conscientious—they seemed to try very hard to do what they were supposed to do, to please their master—and you’ve probably known dogs who didn’t seem to care. And, dogs differ in their openness to new things; some are curious and explorative, and others aren’t. However, the personalities of dogs and chimpanzees can be characterized by a sixth trait that reflects how dominant they are. Some dogs and chimps are more dominant, and some are more submissive. Of course, human beings differ in dominance too, but in humans, dominance seems to be part of extraversion rather than its own independent trait

Okay, let me make a couple of final points about the big five. Many people are surprised that much of the incredible diversity that we see in people’s personalities can be captured by only 5 fundamental traits. As you think about all of the people you know, they certainly seem to differ far more than you might expect based on only 5 personality characteristics. But consider this: If you think about a person’s pattern of scores across these 5 traits, rather than his or her standing on only one trait at a time, you start to see a great deal of diversity in people’s personalities.

As we saw, people can range from very low to very high on each of these 5 characteristics. Although each of these trait dimensions involves a very large number of possible scores, let’s simply think of them on a simple 5-point scale. Let’s say that for each of the big five traits, people can score very low, moderately low, average, moderately high, or very high. So, we could give every person a score from 1 to 5 on each of the big five traits.

Okay, so we have 5 traits, and we’ll pretend that each of them has only 5 possible levels from low to high. That alone would result in 3125 different combinations of the 5 traits! That’s 5 times 5 times 5 times 5 times 5. That is, if we wanted to classify people into all possible unique combinations of the big five traits, and we were going to use only 5 levels of each trait to do the classification, we would need over 3000 unique categories. That’s a lot of different sorts of personalities! But there’s even more diversity than that, because each of the big five actually has more than 5 levels.

In addition, any particular trait manifests differently depending on a person’s standing on other traits. A given trait, such as neuroticism, looks different depending on the person’s standing on other traits. Let me give a very simple example. A person who is high in neuroticism and high in agreeableness has many negative emotions but is nonetheless a pleasant person who probably tries hard to please other people. His neuroticism may make him clingy, and maybe even annoying, but it doesn’t negatively affect other people very much. But if that same highly neurotic person is low in agreeableness, you’d better watch out.

A highly emotional person who is disagreeable and mean will make his problems your problems and will be a very difficult person to deal with. Neuroticism manifests differently depending on whether the person is high or low in agreeableness. That’s a very simple example with only 2 traits, but I hope you see the point. Not only can we have many combinations of variations of the big five, but specific combinations change the way that particular traits manifest in people’s behavior.

From the lecture series Why You are Who You Are: Investigations into Human Personality taught by Professor Mark Leary, Ph.D.

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