Temperament and the Big Five Openness Scale–Still problems there?

Part I:  Possible Openness flaws

Openness or Openness to Experience is the fifth of the Big Five Temperaments.  In many ways it is the most interesting, but the least clearly defined, and perhaps the most controversial.  In American politics, in particular, the Openness scale has been widely described as showing a significant deficit in Openness among persons sharing political beliefs on the conservative side. That is interesting but just what does it mean? Very high openness is also linked with some undesirable outcomes, from bipolar disorder to a greater risk of problems in the schizoid spectrum.  Is there a safe openness area—not too stogy, and uncreative, but not too crazy either?

My own opinion is that the Openness scale is still a work in progress.  This is probably not the view of the authors of the Neo-PI versions of the Big Five, but a hard look at what a high Openness score is related to, raises as many questions as answers.   Is it largely a reflection of high intelligence?  (Current thinking is, probably not.) Do Open people remain passively open to whatever comes along, or are they motivated to seek experiences? (Lots of evidence here.) Are closed people deliberately and actively “closed” against new ideas, new adventures, new foods?  Or are they low in intelligence, or somehow low in sensitivity to the world around them?  Or are they defending against the new ideas, new experiences that threaten them? (Not much research here.)   Even where there are answers, the answers continue to be debated.

My doubts/concerns are as follows:

I. The scale and its facets are not as strong, statistically, as the rest of the Big Five.  Taken alone this doesn’t mean much, but it could point to internal problems.

 II.  Some specific correlations with Extraversion seem problematic.

III. The overall meaning and source of Openness remains unclear, at least to me.

Defining the Openness scale, according to the Professional manual for the NEO Inventories*

“Open individuals are curious about both inner and outer worlds, and their lives are experientally richer than those of closed individuals.  They are willing to entertain novel ideas and unconventional values, and they experience both positive and negative emotions more keenly than do closed individuals.”  “Men and women who score low on O tend to be conventional in behavior and conservative in outlook.  They prefer the familiar to the novel, and their emotional responses are somewhat muted….it seems likely that closed people simply have a narrower scope and a lower intensity of interests.”

The six subscales or facets of Openness are as follows:     

         Fantasy:  Having a vivid imagination and active fantasy life.  

        Aesthetics:    Having a deep  appreciation for art and .                                               beauty.  High scorers experience deeper and  more  differentiated                                                    emotional  states and feel both happiness and unhappiness more intensely than others.    

         Actions: Willingness to try different things. Like variety.                     

      Ideas :  Intellectual curiosity  new, unconventional ideas.                                       

        Values : “Openness to  values means readiness to reexamine  social, political and            religious values.” (My personal life experience tells  me this last description is over the top.  It may betrue for young adults but the only people I know who are open to a whole reexamination of their political  and religious values, generally are not (or not  yet) deeply invested in these issues!)                                               

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Pausing to think about correlations

 Most of the relationships of other concepts to the Openness concept are correlational in nature so I want to pause here, and review the basic idea for anyone not familiar with it. Correlations measure the degree to which one measurable thing is related to another and therefore could predict the other.  If height and weight were perfectly correlated then you could always be sure that a person who is 5 feet 10 inches would weigh exactly the same as any other person of that height.  If there were no relationship, height would not predict weight at all, even though something else–age, or gender, or health or strength very well might.   Instead, height does predict weight but only approximately.  Numerically, correlations run from zero (no relationship) to either + or – 1.  A minus (-) correlation simply indicates that as one variable increases the other decreases.  Such a negative correlation might be expected for example, between frequency of nightmares and hours of restful sleep.

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Looking at the statistical issues

The inter-correlations of the Openness facets with one another are all positive and meaningful in varying degrees, but not large.  Given that a perfect one-to one-correlation figure would be 1.000 and no correlation at all would be zero, the table below indicates that all facets relate to one another, but many are not strongly related to each other, even though they all correlate well with the parent Openness scale, at an average of about .63.  (Just a little lower than the rest of the scales and their facets, which range from .66 to .75).*

 

Fantas.

Aesthet.

Feeling

Actions

Ideas

Values

Fantasy

1.0

.28

.39

.24

.30

.24

Aesthetics

.28

1.0

.39

.34

.46

.13

Feeling

.39

.39

1.0

.23

.25

.17

Actions

.24

.34

.23

1.0

.31

.28

Ideas

.30

.46

.25

.31

1.0

.25

Values

.24

.13

.17

.28

.25

1.0

In particular, here the relationship between the Values facet and both the Fantasy and Feeling facets is very low.  Values has a .52 correlation with over all Openness, so it is contributing to the overall category, but in a largely independent way. More generally the average intercorrelations between all of the Openness facets in the table above, are lower for Openness than for any other scale and its facets have an average correlation of .28 versus .48 for Neuroticism facets, .45 for Conscientiousness facets , .35 for Extraversion and for Agreeableness .33.

Another statistical issue is the existence of a .40 correlation between overall Extraversion and overall Openness.  This is repeated in the correlation between the E facet of Positive Emotions and the Openness Feelings facet.  Feelings asks about strong emotions and moods of all kinds, both positive and negative.  Items indicating that the individual is conscious of this range of moods is a part of the facet and a part of Openness more generally.  However, Extraversion has a facet called Positive Emotions that equally taps experiencing strong feelings, but only in the positive, joyous direction.  These two E and O facets correlate at .39, as high as all but one correlation within Openness facets.  There are also some lesser relationships between the E facets of Assertiveness and Activity and the O facet of Actions.  This is somewhat unusual statistically, but the implication of a substantial relationship between Extraversion and Openness also seems unlikely on a commonsense level.  People high on fantasizing , aesthetic appreciation love of ideas, etc. seem unlikely to fall on the extraverted side.

Conclusion:  This does not mean that the Openness scale does not do its job in selecting for something that is unique from the other scales, but it does make it harder to be sure that it is a unitary factor, and to know exactly what that factor is.

Back to the concept of Openness.

Is it not something more than having your doors and windows open, waiting to receive?  Even the Five Factor authors admit that Openness has a motivational component that is not obvious from the title.**  This is described as being actively motivated to seek out new experiences.  However, although this fits well with questions in some of the facets (for example “Sometimes I make changes around the house, just to try something different.”, or “I enjoy working on ‘mindtwister’ type puzzles) it isn’t reflected in the overall title, nor as a facet on its own.  Perhaps it should be.  There is considerable evidence that there is an active motivation or need involved.

For example, the authors, McCrae and Costa** have reported that an acceptable measure of the need for change on the Personality Research Form correlates with Openness at .40.  This need for change is described as “(1) Lack of Fixation.  To have no fixed habitat, to enjoy moving from place to place, to wander and travel.  To have few permanent attachments.  To seek novelty…To be fickle in love….(2) Lack of repetition.  To be irregular in rising, eating, working… To exhibit mood swings, unpredictable responses, sudden inconsistencies of purpose. (3) need for Plasticity:  The ability to move, change loyalties or adopt new modes of behavior…..” Similarly another reputable measure–the Experience Seeking scale from the larger Sensation Seeking Scale, correlates at .53, suggesting again, an active component that is beyond simply being open to events. 

Moving from there to genetics, a 2011 study found that a particular gene for the neural transmitter dopamine, is linked to liberal attitudes in politics.***  This might seem like a stretch, except that the Values facet is often called the liberal facet because of the nature of its questions.  And then it turns out that this gene is also linked to attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, suggesting it may lead to less focused thinking, as might be true in novelty seeking. **** Two other studies have found links between high Openness and a lifetime diagnosis of Substance abuse, and Openness and marijuana abuse.  Dopamine is linked to the rewarding properties of a number of drugs, so the 7R gene-substance abuse link is not unreasonable.  Whether the link from that to Openness is solid is not as clear, but all of these findings point to something in the area of need for stimulation, excitement or novelty. I really think that should be more explicit in the Openness scale.

One last criticism of the scale itself concerns  a few individual items.  For example, there is general agreement that Openness is not closely related to intelligence. There are definite IQ correlations but they are not powerful. High intelligence was, however, an early assumption, and an item like enjoying working on mind-twister puzzles still seems to imply this, and may need to be more generalized. 

Also, in the Values facet there are a number of questions that do assume that more liberal values indicate more open-mindedness.  That may be accurate, but it strikes me that social desirability (answering in the more socially accepted direction) was not considered, but should have been.  Most items scored in terms of liberal values seem moderate and likely to gain the endorsement of most people.  Statements that are scored in the reverse direction (as closed-minded) seem more harshly closed than questions scored in the openness direction.  I am not sure what effect this would have on the outcome, but it seems odd.

 For example—a question that asks if traditional values should be honored seems okay, until it adds that these values should not be questioned, which seems like awfully hard core closed- mindedness.  This is one area where I believe the MBTI and its forced choice format has done a better job in not making one choice far more acceptable than the other.  For example there is an MBTI item that asks whether you would support the established ways of doing good, or try to see what is wrong and attack problems that are still present.  In the eyes of the answerer both alternatives assume you are a decent person.  In addition this approach does not define the problems specifically, and in that sense, does not date itself. 

Coming later this week:  Part II:  Are high creativity, high Openness and the schizophrenic spectrum–linked?

 References

*McCrae, Robert R. & Costa Paul T. (2010)  NeoTM Inventories:  Professional Manual.  Lutz, FL:  PAR

 **McCrae RR., and Costa, P. T.  (1997)  Conceptions and correlates of Openness to Experience.  In R. Hogan, I. A., J. A. Johnson & S. R. Briggs (Es.), Handbook of personality psychology (pp. 825-847). Orlando Fl:  Academic Press.

***Is there a Liberal Gene? (Oct. 2010)  Discovery News (online report)

****Am. J. Psychiatry (May 1999.  Dopamine D4 Gene 7-Repeat Allele and Attention Deficit  Hyperactivity Disorder : Brief Report.  (Online).

 

 

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One Response to Temperament and the Big Five Openness Scale–Still problems there?

  1. Nyx says:

    Hi, I stumbled in. I found this all fascinating, but was really quite astonished when I read this: “This is somewhat unusual statistically, but the implication of a substantial relationship between Extraversion and Openness also seems unlikely on a commonsense level. People high on fantasizing , aesthetic appreciation love of ideas, etc. seem unlikely to fall on the extraverted side.” I am very curious to know why that seems so to you? I am by nature both extremely extraverted and “open” as you describe it. I am the kid who would never shut up in school. I was also in chorus and band, did musicals, studied voice, sang in a capella groups, etc. I was a daydreamer who loves reading. I read the Tolkien books over and over and over. I like to tinker and make weird things. I get restless. I was a hippie-ish young person, attended Rainbow gatherings, and have voted for Democratic presidential candidates every time from age 18 till now (44). This also seems true of a really large number of people I know. Yes, there are some “writer types” who are quiet and withdrawn, librarians and museum goers who eschew parties. But these don’t really seem to be the same people who are seeking high levels of stimulation and novelty, the restless footloose people. I just don’t understand.

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