A Critique of the Big Five’s Openness to Experience

What is striking about the way Openness in the Big Five personality system is defined is how biased the descriptions are in favor of high Openness. This amounts to an ongoing point of contention, with the definition of Openness having undergone perpetual readjustments and corrections since the 1970’ies.

To understand how this bias crept into the system is no hard feat: Something like 90% of all social science researchers (the kind of people who produce these studies) are well-educated, middle-class liberals – exactly the kind of people who tend to be high in Openness themselves. In other words, only a few of the researchers operating in this field are low on Openness themselves. People who are low on Openness simply have no voice. They are typically only studied as object from afar.

In fact, researchers have had to correct the definition of Openness in the past because they had unwittingly snuck their own middle-class values into the system: For example, being high on Openness once included “a propensity to participate in community organizations” – exactly the kind of thing that white, middle-class citizens with an interest in social science are likely to do themselves. Yet as more and more data flushed in, it  gradually became obvious that this assumption had little basis in reality – the “good citizens” of the community, who participate in community organizations, may just as well be low in Openness. In fact, they may even be more likely to be low in Openness.

To this day, there is still ongoing research that sets out to correct our biased perception of Openness. Most prominently, one could name the researcher Jonathan Haidt from New York University and his research into the value of low-Openness traits for human civilization.

So our perception of Openness is biased to this day, and while the false assumptions will gradually be corrected it will be many years still and there is no quick fix around the corner. So what might be a way in which Openness is still biased? Well, if we refer to Jungian typology, we see that according to the Big Five, one defining trait is that people who are high in Openness appreciate art and aesthetics. In Jung’s typology, that would supposedly meant that N types are more likely to appreciate art than S types, but if we examine Jung’s typology that doesn’t seem to hold up: Certainly there are N types who appreciate art, but does it really make sense to say that ENTPs are more likely to appreciate art than ISFP? Probably not. Two obvious possibilities thus present themselves: Maybe Openness and a preference for Intuition are overlapping but not synonymous when understood as traits. In that case it could easily be true that people who are high in Openness tend to appreciate art while there is no such special correction for Jung’s Intuitive types. On the other hand, it could it turn to mean that an appreciation of art is another of those white middle-class values that the researchers have unsuspectingly inserted into the system as representative of their own preferences. Time will tell.

Finally, a bon mot: Being low on Openness is defined as being resistant to change. And of course, if we look at Openness in an American context we can certainly say that the circumstances surrounding the election of Barack Obama in 2008, the people who were high in Openness tended to vote for him and were certainly eager for sweeping and dramatic changes to an extent that the people who voted for the Republican candidate were not. But even so, there are probably also areas where the people who voted for the Democrats were resistant to change: For cuts in benefits like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, for example.  The lesion here is that defining someone as “resistant to change” isn’t very likely to be an accurate description of how somebody sees himself. As the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said: “Everyone wants development but nobody wants change.” That is to say: Simply saying that people who are low in Openness are “resistant to change” isn’t going to cut it. That is only how it looks from the high Openness side of the table. In the Big Five system will purport to be an objective way of describing differences of personality, it befalls its proponents to reach across the table and to find a way of speaking about and operationalizing the difference in a way that does justice to both parties way of understand themselves. And the same goes for Sensation types for that matter. Anything else is simply one party bantering the other while pretending to be scientific.