Since a large part of my research program is investigating the importance of openness to experience, I get asked all the time: Can openness be improved? I always hedge at this question, simply because there is such a dearth of research addressing this topic.
I mean, we know the correlations. And there are a lot of those. Openness to experience– which can be defined as the drive for cognitive exploration of inner experience— is positively associated with lots of awesome stuff, including:
- Enjoyment of imagination and mind-wandering
- Tendency to seek out and enjoy cognitive stimulation
- High tolerance for ambiguity
- Low need for closure
- Willingness to entertain a variety of perspectives
- Personal growth
- Breadth and depth of emotional experience
- Appreciation of beauty
- Aesthetic chills
So clearly openness is associated with lots of important outcomes in life. But this just means that people who are naturally and spontaneously more open in their daily lives tend to have higher levels of these outcomes in life. Surprisingly, we know very little about whether we can actually do anything to increase trait levels of openness, and what the outcomes would look like if more people intentionally engaged in openness in their daily lives.
As an important first step toward answering these understudied questions, Zachary van Allen and John Zelenski looked at the short-term effects of greater openness engagement. While it may be difficult to fundamentally alter an entire person’s personality structure in 5 days, they were curious whether engaging in greater openness in the short-term can at the very least improve important outcomes we know are associated with the trait openness.
The researchers randomly assigned 210 undergrads enrolled in introductory psychology to participant in either the “openness” experimental condition or the “control” condition. All participants completed a battery of tests before the intervention, and then engaged in activities for five straight days.
In the control condition, participants were asked to “record, in as much detail as possible, the happenings of your life in the past 24 hours.” Control participants also engaged in a trivia task thought to elicit little or no curiosity. In contrast, activities in the open condition consisted of a series of 15 minute writing assignments that encouraged introspection and cognitive exploration of aesthetics, ideas, and feelings, as well as a trivia task in which the questions were designed to elicit curiosity.*
On the days that participants engaged in the activities, they completed a battery of questionnaires that assessed emotions, creative thinking, authenticity, and effort experienced while completing the tasks. After the five days, all participants took a post-test assessment which included measures of emotions, personal growth, authenticity for the week, and creative thinking. What did they find?
The Effects of Open Engagement
First, creativity. We know that openness to experience is the strongest correlate of creativity. But does instructing people to engage in openness-related activities for 5 days increase their creative thinking, even in the short-term?
It doesn’t look like it. While those who were already more open before the experiment generated more alternate uses for an everyday object (a traditional measure of creative thinking), there was no difference between the control condition and the open condition in regards to creative thinking scores. In fact, those in the control condition were more elaborate in their creative responses.
Interestingly, however, those who wrote more words than average in their daily logs (regardless of condition) did show higher creative thinking scores (particularly increased flexibility in their creative thinking). This may speak to the power of expressive writing on creativity— not to mention the effect of expressive writing on mental health and well-being— irregardless of the specific content.
In terms of authenticity and personal growth, while preexisting openness levels were associated with authenticity and personal growth, there was zero difference in increasing levels of authenticity and personal growth between the two conditions. However, there was some important nuance. For both authenticity and personal growth, there was an effect of engaging in the openness-related activities for those already scoring high in openness. Also, regardless of condition, those who wrote more during the daily writing tasks reported increasing higher scores on the personal growth scale, again possibly speaking to the power of expressive writing more generally.
Also notably, all participants reported feeling more positive emotions immediately following the open condition activities relative to the control condition activities, but those already scoring high in openness showed particularly higher positive emotions engaging in the openness condition, and those already scoring high in openness showed lower positive emotions in the control condition.
What Does All This Mean?
There is increasing evidence that forcing people to act contrary to their natural dispositions can be detrimental. For instance, while we know that overall (averaging across everyone) extraversion is strongly positively correlated with well-being and happiness, asking introverts to repeatedly engaged in extraverted behavior can lead to increased anxiety and tiredness and decreased feelings of authenticity over time.
Likewise, the results of the current study suggest that the same effects also apply within the domain of openness. Asking people to engage in openness-related activities over the course of multiple days had the strongest effect on those who were already high in openness. Those who already score low in openness probably looked at the activities as a nuisance, whereas those scoring higher in openness were probably energized by the activities.
Whereas I often tout the benefits of openness on creative thinking, intellectual curiosity, imagination, and profoundly emotional and aesthetic experiences, all of this research is an important reminder to me that not everyone cares equally about these outcomes. While I personally think that the laundry list of the correlates of openness I presented at the beginning of this article are important outcomes to cultivate in society (especially in today’s society), it appears that asking people to act out of character repeatedly is not the best way to change their behaviors unless they want to change.
I think this is a really important caveat, and I encourage researchers who conduct further research on this topic to measure the extent to which people scoring low on certain personality traits have the motivation to improve those levels. Brent Roberts and his colleagues have found that most people do want to be more open to new experiences, but that’s certainly not everyone. I would be interested to see whether the openness-related activities have an effect particularly on those low open people who do wish to change their personality. I’d also be interested in looking at the effects over a longer stretch of time than just five days!
We do know that personality change is possible, but you have to want to change, and be willing to put in the hard work to repeatedly change your behaviors and habits. The good news, however, is that the latest science of personality suggests that with enough adjustments your patterns over time, you can fundamentally change who you are.
* For instance, in the ” feelings” daily log, participants wrote about their deepest thoughts and emotions regarding two meaningful life events, and in the ” introspection” daily log, participants were instructed to rank order 11 values/characteristics in order of personal relevance and explain why they made those choices and when those values/characteristics were particularly important for them. For a complete description of all of their activities, I recommend reading their paper.