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Openness: The Gates of Mind

“Openness is seen in the breadth, depth and permeability of consciousness, and in the recurrent need to enlarge and examine experience.”

– MCCRAE & COSTA, 1997, P. 826

Openness (which is actually Openness to experience) breaks down into Intellect and Openness. 

Intellects like grappling with ideas. They love to solve complex problems and debate philosophical matters. They have a rich vocabulary and can formulate ideas clearly.

Those high in Openness enjoy the beauty found in nature and art. They see patterns that others don’t. They tend to be very reflective – the so-called daydreamers who always have their heads stuck in the clouds

Open types love to experience new things, of course. Having a creative outlet isn’t so much a hobby as it is a need. Like oxygen!

In simple terms, we can say that straight Openness is associated with creativity, imaginativeness, and interest in aesthetics, whereas Intellect is related to an interest in ideas. 

Both are strongly correlated with IQ. 

Let’s start with creativity and Openness before moving on to Intellect, and the link both have to intelligence.

What Is Creativity?

To quote the dictionary, “creativity is the use of imagination or original ideas to create something.” Inventiveness is a good word. What’s going to help facilitate a creative mind is exposure to many different things, movies, experiences, books, art, theatre, etc, etc. 

One way researchers have measured creativity is through divergent thinking tests. These require individuals to come up with as many ideas or solutions to a simple problem. 

For example, how many uses can you think up for a brick? 

Less open people typically generate fewer and more obvious answers to this question, like building a wall or a house. Whereas an open person will think weapon, paperweight, doorstop, or putting it on the gas pedal of a car in case you want to drive it off a cliff without anyone in it. (Naturally.)

You can measure creativity by the sheer number of ideas or in terms of originality.

What differentiates an open person’s brain has something to do with latent inhibition, a process also known as learned irrelevance. 

Of course, it’s impossible to take in every detail the world throws our way. Learning what to ignore is critical, otherwise we would become overwhelmed by the sheer amount of data presented.

So what our clever little minds do is cull irrelevant information. The cost here is this information may be helpful later on. When later on arrives, we may fail to recognise its significance, to unlearn its irrelevance. 

Researchers have tested latent inhibition by “exposing participants to seemingly unimportant stimuli that later form the basis of a learning task.” 

For the average person, this information – having been rendered irrelevant – gets filtered out. So it fails to penetrate awareness. Open people, on the other hand, are far more likely to bring that information to mind. 

This is what, in part, makes Open people great problem solvers. The ability to connect seemingly unrelated dots, to see things that others don’t. 

The Costs of Openness

So, you can think of latent inhibition as the brain’s filter. Open-minded people have a leakier consciousness that lets more information in.

You might think that’s great because you notice more. That must be an advantage. This is true, but it also means you’re more likely to struggle with distraction. Focusing on the task at hand can be tough if you’re always off in the clouds. 

That’s the price you pay for a creative mind, of course. A wandering mind is a creative one. But it’s also one prone to overthinking and anxiety.

Those who are excessively high in Openness and low in Conscientiousness (in particular) may be so drawn by new ideas/beliefs – so susceptible to changing winds – that they struggle to form a coherent life structure.

It can be a curse for someone high in neuroticism too. 

Openness is, in some sense, a drive to explore the unknown. To buck conventions and take a step out into chaos. It’s a risker mode of existence. That nature can be hard to reconcile if you’re highly neurotic. 

The danger for a closed-minded individual is ignoring what is pertinent. The warning signs that what you are doing or thinking is wrong. 

We shouldn’t always follow the standard operating procedures (as we say in aviation). Often we need to think laterally to overcome a problem. To adapt to an ever-changing world.

If you have a belief – if you only ever look for/accept what confirms that belief – your idea of the world may crash violently with reality. This can be hard to reconcile if you don’t learn to open your mind – if not for you, then for those on who you enforce your particular worldview. 

The Link to Intelligence

It’s difficult to talk about Openness without mentioning intelligence. 

I should say, a straight IQ test is still the best way to measure intelligence, although you’re unlikely to be low in IQ if you score high in either Intellect or Openness. However, it’s not uncommon to be low in Intellect but high in IQ. 

This is because Intellect is a measure of interest in abstract ideas, essentially, whereas an IQ test is a measure of processing speed, verbal ability, working memory, and problem-solving capacity.

You can, broadly speaking, break general intelligence into Fluid intelligence and Crystallised intelligence. 

Fluid intelligence is like your brain’s processing speed. Provided you are given the proper nutrition in childhood, it’s pretty much set from birth. It slowly declines with age. 

Crystallised intelligence is a measure of what you know. It’s the knowledge you’ve accumulated from prior learning and past experiences. It increases with age.

There’s an interesting split here. 

Straight Openness is more closely linked to verbal or Crystallised intelligence, whereas Intellect is more closely related to non-verbal/general or Fluid intelligence. 

How to Broaden Your Mind

Now, one question that often arises – something that has created a lot of heated debate – is whether or not one’s intelligence can be increased. The answer is both yes and no. 

For the most part your Fluid intelligence is fixed but you can increase your Crystallised intelligence. But here’s the thing. Crystallised intelligence and Fluid intelligence are intertwined. 

You increase Crystallised intelligence by using your Fluid intelligence to reason and think about abstract problems. 

So here’s a suggestion. 

Find an idea that really grabs you. Something that is difficult to wrap your head around, that you can grapple with. Then read as much as you can about it. Listen to all sides of the argument.

Really seek to understand. 

Finally, consolidate your learning by writing about it in your own words. It is one of the best ways to do so.

Trying to learn something new is a habit that’s worth developing for life. It turns out that increased Crystallised intelligence actually compensates for the decline in other cognitive abilities as you age.

It’s like an old chessplayer competing against a younger apprentice. The younger kid may be able to think quicker, but the more senior player has a considerable breadth of knowledge to draw on. 

Some Closing Thoughts

I want to finish this post by bringing up a final point about intelligence. 

Sometimes, something of a superiority complex is found in naturally intelligent people. If you have an IQ of 115 or greater, that puts you in the top 15 % of the population. What’s more, most people you know are probably just as smart as you are. 

You’re not seeing the whole picture. 

There are just as many people at the other end of the IQ spectrum. Those who score less than 83 are not eligible to be inducted into the United States army. They really struggle to look after themselves in a modern complex industrial society. 

What that means is (I’m taking an educated guess here that I’m talking to the top 15%) you’re really fucking lucky. If you have a high IQ that is something to be extremely grateful for. 

Not to belittle any hard work for whatever successes you may have accomplished, but IQ is the most significant determinant of success. Nothing else comes close.  

You’re not better than someone just because you’re smarter than them. And there’s a reason why researchers have often found an inverse correlation between intelligence and conscientiousness. 

Those who struggled more at school often had to work much harder to pass the bar. In the process of learning to work hard, many of these kids often end up outpacing everyone else later in life. 

There is something significant to be said about that. Of course there are many things that make up one’s character. Intelligence is but one.

I want to stress that all of us are closed-minded to a large degree. Nature didn’t intend for everyone to open natured.

If we didn’t compartmentalise the world – if we didn’t attach labels, draw lines or make assumptions – we wouldn’t have a psychological grounding to stand on. 

We have to close our minds to a large extent in this world. If you remain open to absolutely everything, you will never become anything. 

That means make some tough choices. That means coming to terms with the world we have closed ourselves off from and the one we have locked ourselves into. 

I believe that not only is that ok, it’s necessary.

Because we don’t, can’t, and never will be able to see the whole picture. But that idea, paradoxically, is the one we must always remain open to.

This is part of a series on the Big Five Personality Traits. Please find previous post below:


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15 thoughts on “Openness: The Gates of Mind

  1. Though provoking as always. When I was younger, so much younger than today, I used to take pride in my intellect, and moreover, with that typical mixture of insecurity and arrogance of the American White male adolescent, took pride in weaponizng it on occasion.

    But now, as I think I’ve mentioned before, I’ve realized intelligence is an accident of birth, and therefore to be proud of it would be like being proud of my blood type.

    Of course, one can take pride in how one applies that gift. But it’s also worth noting that while I’m reasonably bright in some areas, I’m hopelessly, almost comedically, dim-witted at many more things.

    If you told me that my combustion engine works because the constant stream of tiny explosions spurs woodland sprites to move the pistons, I’d be skeptical, but I couldn’t rule it out, either.

    If people saw me try to put on fitted sheets, I’d likely no longer be allowed to drive or vote.

    My point is there’s a wide variety of flavors of intelligence, and most of us are deficient in at least a few.

    Your point about creativity is also fascinating to me. I find the act of thinking about my plays as I write them is always a recipe for crappy work. The more I can “shut off” the analytical part of my brain and just, as you say, be open, the better the work will flow.

    It’s more or less the only area in my life where I can quiet my chatty intellect as it goes about its daily business of swallow its own tail.

    1. I can sympathise with your struggles with fitted sheets. Indeed Intelligence comes in many forms. I think making the most of what we have is the most admirable thing. That, and understanding/appreciating the different gifts each of us bring to the table. I believe everybody else knows at least something you don’t. For that reason alone we should listen, not assume we know better or worse. I’m always amazed at how much my two boys aged 4 and 1.5 teach me. They remind how dumb it is to think all the time. Creativity and play go hand in hand. I often think, like you, my best work happens when I allow my sub conscious to kind of flow through me. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Jack. Much appreciated 🙏

    2. Jack, you have such a gift for making me laugh and making a point at the same time! Your lines – weaponizing it on occasion, no longer be allowed to drive or vote – to name just a couple are cracking me up.

      But I totally concur with your point about turning off the analytical part. One cannot be a writer and an editor at the same time.

      1. Wynne, you are far too kind, which my therapist repeatedly assured me I don’t deserve. I’m a big fan of your posts, too, and am intimidated by your ease with technology!

      2. You better get a new therapist, Jack! Of course you do!

        I don’t want to brag here – but I can do fitted sheets as well. 🙂

      3. Firstly: that surprise me at all. Another reason to be a little intimidated by you 🥹I really believe if we wanted to lower divorce rates, we’d record me me trying it and just show it to anyone marriage counselor. They’d stick it out, trust me.

      4. I love your last line. I often say (to no one in particular) it’s important to be incredibly kind to yourself as a writer and ruthless with yourself as an editor.

      5. Kind to yourself as a writer and ruthless as an editor. Makes perfect sense! But hard to keep track of all those selves.

        Kinda reminds me of when Goran Ivanisovic was playing Andre Agassi and kept talking to himself on court. Later an interviewer asked who he was talking to out there and he said sometimes the Good Goran and sometimes the Bad Goran. Andre then piped in and said, “wow, I was outnumbered out there.” 🙂

  2. Brilliant post, AP2. I’m fascinated by the inverse correlation between intelligence and conscientiousness.

    But I’m also just so impressed by your ability to not only write about the ideas and research on this topic but paint the whole picture and bring it full circle. It’s some combination of crystallized intelligence, creativity and emotional intelligence that makes you a great writer.

    1. Hi Wynne! I’m pleased you liked the post. You’re too kind – thank you!

      That correlation is a fascinating one indeed. I should say it’s a relatively small correlation but one that exists in certain cases for the reason I mentioned. Researches also found that a difference between self reported rates of conscientiousness and observed rates in relation to intelligence. Often the correlation was negative when self-reported but positive when observed/reported by others. I guess many of us think we are less conscientious than we really are. I think that’s true of me. I work hard but often feel I don’t work hard enough. In reality I do work pretty hard.

      Thank you for taking the time to read Wynne/your kind words. Wishing you well 🙏

  3. Interesting article AP2, as usual. But what about Emotional Intelligence? In Europe we are considering it more and more often especially in recruitment. Research data suggests that IQ accounts for only about 20% of success in life, with the remaining 80% is made up by other factors, emotional intelligence included. Daniel Goleman is the guru of Emotional Intelligence. He states that Emotional Intelligence can be taught and learned, as it is about knowing and managing your emotions. What do you think about it? (Of course Emotional Intelligence is more than that, but I think this is the main takeaway).

    1. Emotional intelligence is undeniably very important. I believe there is a link to openness but it weighs most heavily on neuroticism/extraversion (the negative/positive emotion dimensions). Indeed there are many factors that account for ones success howeve, it’s my understanding that there is no single predictor as high as IQ. At any rate, the point I was trying to highlight is that there is much more to a person than intelligence in the traditional sense of the word. Cultivating greater emotional intelligence is something we would all do well to work on. Thank you for sharing your thoughts Cristiana 🙏

  4. Fascinating post, AP! i struggle to keep up with technology, and I am quite absent-minded, I think these are symptoms of the mental decline of aging. I don’t believe that means I should give up, just become more strategic. 🙂

    1. It’s interesting that our crystallised intelligence increases as we age – which is linked to higher openness – yet we also become less open as we age. I suspect this a product of settling down – knowing what we like/ourselves better as we age. Thank you for sharing Cheryl. I’m pleased you enjoyed the post 🙏

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