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What Openness To Experience Means
Not sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll
The Big Five—Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism—is one of my favorite systems for talking about personality traits. Unfortunately, a lot of people I talk to are confused about what Openness to Experience means. They assume it refers to whether you take drugs, have casual sex, go to wild parties, go hitchhiking, fly across the world on a whim, and so on.
I understand why this misconception is so persistent. Openness to Experience is badly named; it sounds like it means the drugs thing. (In fact, Openness to Experience is so badly named that only one of the facets has anything to do with trying new things.) And, for such a popular system, it is surprisingly difficult to find a free and widely available explanation of the thirty facets.
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But the drugs, casual sex, wild parties, and hitchhiking trait is not Openness. It is the Excitement Seeking facet of Extraversion. To quote from The Revised NEO Personality Inventory: Clinical and Research Applications:
E5: Excitement-Seeking. High scorers on this scale crave excitement and stimulation. They like bright colors and noisy environments. Excitement-seeking is akin to some aspects of sensation seeking. These individuals are described as flashy, seekers of strong stimulation, and risk takers. Low scorers feel little need for thrills and prefer a life that high scorers might find boring. These individuals are described as cautious, staid, and uninterested in thrills.
Openness to Experience isn’t about that. Openness to Experience is about whether you are an aesthete.1
I find it helpful to think about the Big Five by thinking about the facets, which gives you a more nuanced sense of the different ways a particular trait manifests. Openness to Experience has six facets:
Fantasy. People who are high in Fantasy are imaginative. They daydream constantly. They ask themself “what if?” They like fiction, and then once they finish a story they’ll start wondering what would have happened if one of the characters had made a different decision. If you tell yourself a story every night while you’re falling asleep, you’re high in Fantasy.
Aesthetics. People who are high in Aesthetics care deeply about beauty. They love poetry, music, painting, sculpture, dance, and art of all kinds. If you’ve ever been excited about the Escher exhibition at your local Museum of Modern Art, you’re high in Aesthetics.
Openness to Feelings. People who are high in Feelings have more intense emotions. They think emotions are an important part of life. They have a rich emotional vocabulary and nuanced emotional experience. They can distinguish “irritation,” “frustration,” “indignation,” and “bitch eating crackers.” If you like David MacIver’s blog2, you’re high in Feelings.
Openness to Actions. People who are high in Openness to Actions like trying new things. NOT DRUGS.3 They like travel, new hobbies, and new foods. If you are outraged that there are places you aren’t going to go and skills you aren’t going to learn and activites you aren’t going to try, if “my country should accept more refugees from Hong Kong so we can have better Chinese food” seems like a good argument, or if the world of Alicorn’s story Chaser 6 sounds like utopia, you’re high in Openness to Actions.
Openness to Ideas. People who are high in Openness to Ideas are curious. They enjoy thinking, instead of finding it burdensome and laborous. They like philosophical arguments, puzzles, and nonfiction aimed at the educated layperson. If you have ever spent an afternoon solving a math problem or debating the hard problem of consciousness, you're high in Openness to Ideas.
Openness to Values. People who are high in Openness to Values are liberals in the political philosophy sense, not the vote-for-Democrats sense, although they often vote for Democrats. They are tolerant of people different than them. They question tradition. They believe in freedom. If you would have changed the line in the Girl Scout Law from “respect authority” to “question authority,”4 you’re high in Openness to Values.
To further clarify the difference between Openness and Excitement Seeking, I will discuss four archetypes.
A person high in both Openness and Excitement Seeking is your classic rock star. They drink and take drugs, they have sex with groupies, and maybe they occasionally flash people or eat bats on stage. They speak out against censorship and in favor of acceptance of those different from you. They love getting to see the world and try new things. They have a sensitive and emotional core, which probably manifests itself in their more emo songs. And they love music more than anything in the world; if they gave up all the fame and the wealth and the sex, and only had their guitar and their voice and the truth, they would be happy.
A person high in Openness but low in Excitement Seeking is a nerd. There’s nothing they like more than an evening with a cup of tea and a good book, except maybe getting a long lunch at their favorite little Ethiopian place and then going to an art museum. They solve the New York Times crossword every Sunday morning. They’re thinking about writing a novel, but they’ve never gotten past chapter three. They have a journal where they pour out their many deep feelings (the journal is of course chosen for its aesthetically pleasing paper). They have spent so much time in therapy. They almost certainly have a Tumblr.
A person low in Openness and high in Excitement Seeking orders bottle service at nightclubs. He loves the attention from hot girls in skimpy clothes who claim to be models. He dances. He snorts cocaine in the bathroom. He drives too fast while drunk. He enjoys jetting around the world to the coolest new nightclub destinations, where he sees basically the same girls, listens to basically the same music, drinks basically the same champagne, and has basically the same experience.
A person low in both Openness and Excitement Seeking attends church every week, although if pressed on details of theology their answers will be wild. They have a nice house in the suburbs with a big yard, decorated with both a BLESS THIS MESS cross-stitch and a LIVE LAUGH LOVE fridge magnet. They have two children, more-or-less because everyone has two children. If male, they watch football; if female, they’re active in the PTA. They are genuinely looking forward to their Disney cruise this summer.
In conclusion: Openness to Experience is about being an unbearable aesthete. Excitement Seeking is about wanting to bungee-jump. These are different.
Personally, I am high-Openness and this is central to my vision of the good life, but I do want to explicitly disclaim that many people are happy and fulfilled and valuable members of society while being low-Openness.
Sorry to pick on you, David, but your blog is great.
Okay, fine, psychedelics.
The fact that I did this as a kid is one of the many reasons I was a nightmare to raise.