Openness to experience, or simply openness, is one of five major personality dimensions in the Five Factor Model of personality (FFM), a widely researched and accepted categorization of core personality features that influence behavior and the way we all experience life.1 The trait openness is a rich dimension that, in part, describes how willingly someone accepts new ideas.2
What Is Openness?
Openness to experience is that part of everyone’s personality that describes receptiveness to new ideas, different concepts and opinions, change, curiosity, creativity, and imagination. Together, knowing your level of openness and other factors can help you understand yourself and how you relate to others and your world.3
Openness is one of five core factors of human personality, along with the following:
- Conscientiousness (organization and sense of responsibility)
- Extraversion (nature of sociability)
- Agreeableness (compassion, respectfulness, and trust),
- Neuroticism (temperament tending to be depressed or anxious)
Studies have identified six aspects of openness, including:4
- Action (Seeking new experiences and trying different activities)
- Ideas (Intellectual curiosity and a desire to learn and explore)
- Values (Tolerance, acceptance, and integrating others’ beliefs and worldview into one’s own)
- Aesthetics (Seeking and appreciating beauty in many places and forms)
- Imagination (Creative problem-solving, inventing, and/or participation in the arts)
- Feelings (Understanding and experiencing complex emotions, often deeply)
Openness isn’t an all-or-nothing trait; indeed, everyone possesses all five personality factors, including openness, but to varying degrees.2,3 Think of openness as a spectrum. We all fall somewhere along it, and there’s no such thing as someone who is fully “closed” to life’s experiences. Further, we all vary in the different aspects of openness as well.4 Someone can be highly appreciative of beauty and excellence in performing arts, for example, but not excel at creating visual art or in dancing and theater.
Where we each fall on the spectrum of openness and its various aspects shapes how we see ourselves and others and how we behave in our lives. If you’re interested in knowing about your personal degree of openness, you can take tests to measure your personality factors.
How Is Openness Measured?
A reliable measurement of the five personality factors requires a formal assessment by a psychologist. Psychologists use written (or computerized) tests such as the Structured Interview for the Five-Factor Model of Personality, the NEO Personality Inventory—Revised (NEO-PI-R), or The NEO Five-Factor Inventory (NEO-FFI). These are detailed tests with numerous questions designed to pinpoint the nuances of personality.5 Scores are complex, involving numerous sub-scales that lend reliable insight into someone’s nature.
It’s possible to take versions of these personality tests casually online. Entering “Five factor personality test” or “Big 5 personality test” into a search engine will yield numerous websites where you can take a test free of charge or for a small fee and receive almost instant results. It’s important to note that these are more for entertainment or to gain a general awareness of where you fall on the spectrum of traits such as openness.
For a truly accurate and detailed assessment, it’s necessary to take the test with a licensed psychologist who can then help you interpret the results much more thoroughly than a short profile you receive in an email after taking a quick online test.
What Does Openness Look Like?
As a measure of how receptive someone is to change, openness includes traits such as intellectual curiosity, creativity, imagination, and unconventionalism. Stereotypes of this trait abound. People very high in openness are sometimes labeled as “unusual” or “odd,” while people extremely low in openness might be called “closed-minded” or “rigid.”6
Keeping in mind that there are individual differences within the six aspects of openness, people who are open to experiences tend to:2,7
- Enjoy people and experiences that are new and unfamiliar
- Like surprises
- Need a variety of activities and learning opportunities to prevent boredom
- Reject traditional norms and values
- Prefer spontaneity to routine
- Have an interest in arts, music, and/or literature
- Experience mixed or complex emotions
These tendencies and preferences (or lack of them, in people who rate low in openness) shape how people interact with others and behave in life.
How Openness Influences Behavior
The personality factors combine to contribute to the unique individuals we are. The impact how we act and behave—what we do or don’t do, what interests we pursue, etc. Openness influences our behavior in the following ways.
The more open someone is, the more likely they are to be actively engaged in the world. They tend to seek opportunities for lots of sensory stimulation.7 People high in openness to experience typically have a need for stimulation and fun and are willing to take risks in order to feel a rush of interest and exhilaration.4 In contrast, someone who is low in this trait prefers familiarity, structure, routines, and stability.
A tendency toward openness involves curiosity and receptivity to new concepts, ideas and knowledge.4 People who have a high degree of openness may take a variety of classes, in person or online, in order to discover what they want to do with their lives, and they may change direction multiple times.
Pursuit of Creative Endeavors
Openness is linked strongly to creativity and invention.2,7 This could include the arts, but isn’t limited to arts and culture. It includes being able to think in new ways and develop new ideas or solutions in all areas of life, including engineering, business, and more. People who are open prefer to be leaders and innovators rather than followers and are happiest when they can have positions of leadership in work or volunteer experiences.
Active Appreciation of Beauty
This is similar to creativity, with a slightly different nuance. In addition to or instead of being creative themselves, people who are open tend to appreciate aesthetic beauty and excellence. This appreciation is usually active rather than passive. People who are open need to experience beauty for themselves by immersing themselves in nature, the arts, or any other activity they find pleasing to the senses (such as culinary arts, either preparing or consuming food). People who are high in this trait often tend to be emotionally moved by things they find beautiful as well.4 They feel their reactions physically and embody the phrase “moved to tears.”
The activists in society are frequently high in openness. People who are highly open tend to be independent thinkers, non-conformists, and agents of change.4 They seek to expand the world and make sure all voices are heard and can contribute positively to the world.
Personality plays a role in our interactions with others, and some of the personality factors influence behavior in or satisfaction with relationships. Openness to experience, though, hasn’t been found in studies to have a significant influence on relationships.8,9
What Are the Benefits of Openness?
Being open to experience brings with it many benefits for life. A high degree of openness is connected to positivity, happiness, overall well-being, and increased job performance.2
A review article published in the Journal of Psychology and Clinical Psychiatry highlighted studies into the six aspects of openness and revealed findings indicating that openness:4
- Has a positive correlation with life satisfaction
- Reduces stress (as measured by lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol immediately following exposure to a stressful situation)
- Increases psychological flexibility, the ability to adapt and deal constructively with difficulties
- Contributes to personal growth through the willingness to seek new opportunities, concepts, experiences, and people
- Leads to purposeful life choices that create happiness
- Helps people reflect nonjudgmentally on both positive and negative circumstances or events to create a balanced response to a variety of situations
- Correlates with emotional stability and positive affect (specifically openness to action)
- Corresponds to the absence of depression and anxiety (openness to action)
- Is associated with healthy self-esteem (especially openness to ideas, which includes the tendency to explore new concepts and integrate them into one’s own identity)
In general, people who are open to life experiences are curious and enjoy learning and growing. They also tend to be flexible and adaptable. Together, these often contribute to contentment with life and an ability to approach problems and solve them creatively for continued stability and happiness.
Are There Negative Aspects of Being Open to Experience?
There is no such thing as a personality trait that, when possessed, can magically make someone perfect or erase all challenges and negative perceptions. While openness does have benefits and a high degree of it is correlated with life satisfaction, this trait also has its drawbacks.
People who possess a high degree of openness may be less practical and more impulsive.2 This can make it more difficult to complete tasks and meet goals. Further, those high in openness to action and with a strong need for newness and sensation seeking are prone to engage in risky behaviors to feel that rush and exhilaration.4 This can be especially dangerous as it has been linked to a willingness to experiment with drugs, including, but not limited to, marijuana and ecstasy.2
Openness to feelings and openness to imagination carry a different risk.4 Those high in these areas tend to feel many emotions, often simultaneously, which can be overwhelming. Openness in these two areas is associated with a higher degree of the trait neuroticism and is correlated with anxiety and depression. (You may recall from the list of benefits that openness is linked to the absence of anxiety and depression.)
Openness in general does make people less prone to these mental health challenges. It’s having a high degree of openness to feelings and imagination but a lower amount of the other areas of openness that can lead to feelings of anxiety and depression).
On the most extreme end of the spectrum, openness has been found to be connected to psychoticism, leading to cognitive and perceptual difficulties that are part of schizotypal personality disorder.6 The connection here is likely more with the very high degree of openness that someone possesses rather than the characteristics of openness themselves. To be sure, personality disorders are complex and can’t be explained by a single concept like a personality factor such as openness.
Causes of Openness
When exploring the causes of openness, it’s important to remember that openness is something everyone has, just to varying degrees. The concept of openness describes individual differences in the penchant to embrace new experiences and ideas rather than an all-or-nothing trait.10
As we’ve seen, openness is one of five factors that comprise human personality. Scientists in the field of psychology, especially those interested in personality, have explored (and continue to do so) what makes someone high or low in each of the traits.While as of yet there are no definitive answers, research has begun to shed some light on the causes of personality factors such as openness.
Openness is thought to have a genetic component.2,11 It’s believed that traits like openness are heritable, which is different from being hereditary.11 A hereditary trait is one like eye color that is passed directly from a parent to a child via a specific gene or group of genes. Heritability, in contrast, is a statistical measurement that indicates how much genetics might play a role in the development of a certain characteristic such as a personality trait like openness or an illness. Therefore, explaining the cause of openness is not as simple as being able to say, “My dad is highly open. I inherited my openness from him.” However, if your dad is high in openness to experience and you are, too, genetics could partially explain why you are open to new experiences.
Researchers have traditionally relied on twin studies to indicate that openness is heritable, but recently, the science has become more specific as researchers are able to study the human genome.11 A recent study of 5,011 European adults looked at the heritability of each of the five personality factors using genomic-relatedness-matrix residual maximum likelihood (GREML) analysis. They’ve discovered that openness and neuroticism are indeed heritable, while the traits of conscientiousness, extraversion, and agreeableness are less so.11
Whether gender plays a role in openness remains a mystery. Some studies have shown a difference, with females tending to be more open than males.2,4 The above-mentioned study using GREML analysis, however, found no gender differences in openness (interestingly, researchers did note a gender difference in the other four traits).11
The way someone takes in their world may explain their degree of openness. People high in openness see the world differently than those lower in the trait, and they process information differently as well.7 People who are open to experience are more perceptive than their less-open counterparts, noticing things that others don’t. People who are high in openness possess less latent inhibition, a neurological function that filters out sensory input so we’re not overwhelmed with an endless stream of information and can focus on necessary details of a task; also, they exhibit increased neural activity in what’s known as the default network, a neural system associated with things like mind-wandering and imagining different points of view.7
Consequently, people who are open notice more, absorb more, and have a broader range of ideas to integrate into their concept of themselves and their world. (It’s worth noting that this may be a bit of a chicken-or-egg phenomenon. The way someone takes in and processes information may contribute to their level of openness; conversely, being open may be what leads them to process information the way they do).
7 Ways to Become a More Open-Minded Person
Given that there isn’t a single cause of openness that is tied to a fixed trait like a single gene, openness is malleable. None of the five personality factors, including openness, are set in stone. Studies indicate that it’s possible to change where we fall on the spectrum of the traits.12,13
If you’d like to become more open to experience, use these seven tips to enhance this trait within yourself:
1. Create Intentional Goals
A study reported in 2015 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that setting goals and intentions led to changes in personality factors like openness.12 Rather simply stating that you’d like to be more open, get specific. Why do you want to be more open? What would that mean to you and your life? Examine the six areas of openness explored above, and identify one or two areas that you’d like to expand into. You might want to add more, but starting with just one or two will make the process less overwhelming.
When you know what you want, determine specific, small action steps you can take to reach your goal. For example, if you’d like to become more open to different ideas, you might decide to attend multicultural events and read relevant books, articles, and blog posts to help you expand your horizons.
2. Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
Make sure your goal-directed action steps include activities that help you stretch yourself. To become more open-minded requires that we leave our comfort zone and experience new things.
Start small. You might volunteer at a single event in your community that will expose you to people and places that are unfamiliar. With the confidence you gain from that, you could join an organization where you live that relates to something new and interesting to you. Experiencing new and different things can be uncomfortable and even a little intimidating, but that is what’s necessary to become more open. Listen to Eleanor Roosevelt: “Do one thing every day that scares you.”
3. Be Curious
Give yourself opportunities to wonder and explore. What ideas or topics have you always wondered about but haven’t pursued because they’re not practical or you were told to focus on “what matters”? Schedule some time each week or each day to feed your curiosity. Browse your library, meandering through random sections and selecting books to take home and read. On your work break, look up information about something that interests you. Don’t worry about an end goal but instead be curious and learn simply for learning’s sake.
4. Seek Beauty, and Pause to Appreciate It
Immerse yourself in nature, and experience it mindfully. Even if you can only take a brief walk around your block, stroll leisurely and take in sights, sounds, smells, and textures. Seek things that are pleasing to your senses, and rather than rushing through the experience, slow down and let yourself appreciate and enjoy the experience. This opens your mind and spirit to the world around you and teaches you to approach other situations and people in the same fashion.
5. Hone Your Creative Side
The trait openness encompasses creativity. Free your creative side, and express yourself. Explore hobbies that let you develop ideas and things. You might try rock painting, painting on a canvas, sculpting with clay, building models, making designs with legos, developing new recipes, decorating cakes or cookies—the list is seemingly endless. If you already have a creative hobby, try adding something you’ve never done before. If you’re a talented artist but have never played an instrument, consider buying an inexpensive guitar or a keyboard and taking some lessons or watching instructional videos.
Creativity isn’t limited to actively making something. It’s tied to appreciation of beauty and excellence, and you can nurture your creative side by attending concerts, enjoying art walks or taking in art at a museum or gallery, or going to a play. If you are stuck at home, read books and watch movies in genres that are new to you.
6. Increase Your Tolerance of Uncertainty
Facing the unknown can be anxiety-provoking. Often, we shy away from anything that makes us uncertain or anxious, which can prevent us from becoming more open to experiences.14 Increase your ability to tolerate uncertainty by approaching new situations with a beginner’s mind. Beginner’s mind is the Zen concept of open-mindedness, and it invites us to approach each moment as a beginner would, with no expectations and no judgments.14,15 This frees us to simply be present and experience things as they happen without imposing negative thoughts on them.
7. Work With a Therapist
A therapist can help you become unstuck from things that might be preventing you from being more open-minded. Therapy can also help you explore yourself, set goals, and establish action steps to accomplish them. Be confident that therapists don’t seek to change your personality. Therapy isn’t about imposing unwanted change on people. Instead, it’s about helping people overcome obstacles and/or become who they want to be in healthy, meaningful ways. If you wish to become more open-minded but are having a hard time doing so, a therapist can help you work toward the outcome you desire.
Final Thoughts on Openness
Keep in mind that all five personality factors are intricate and nuanced, just like the overall experience of being human. Further, none of the five factors, including openness, comes with a value judgment. Openness or a lack of it is neither all good nor all bad. It’s simply a way of experiencing yourself and your life.
Knowing where you fall on the spectrum of openness can help you learn about yourself and understand your reactions to circumstances and people around you. Then, you can identify areas for your own personal growth and life enhancement. Embrace those qualities that help you on your journey, and make intentional changes in ways you feel will boost your own life satisfaction.