Openness to Experience, Flexibility, and Integrative Complexity

"Openness to experience," which is one of the Big Five personality traits, is consistently related to creativity (S. B. Kaufman, 2013; McCrae, 1987; Silvia, Nusbaum, Berg, Martin, & O'Connor, 2009). This trait reflects a drive toward exploration and includes openness to fantasy, feelings, actions, ideas, values, and "interest in varied experiences for their own sake" (McCrae, 1987, p. 1259). Thus, individuals who are open to new experiences are more likely to make connections among seemingly unrelated pieces of information, as well as to see new patterns.

Openness to experience can be separated into two main subcomponents (DeYoung, Quilty, & Peterson, 2007): openness (engagement with sensory and perceptual information) and intellect (engagement with abstract information, primarily through explicit reasoning). While intellect is associated with general cognitive ability and working memory, openness is correlated with implicit learning (S. B. Kaufman et al., 2010). This form of learning, defined as "the ability to automatically and implicitly detect complex and noisy regularities in our environment," is closely linked to intuition and can be measured by assessing reaction time on a probabilistic sequence-learning task among other methods (S. B Kaufman et al., 2010, p. 321; Shanks, 2005).

Recent research suggests that the openness versus intellect distinction has important implications for creative achievement. Nusbaum and Silvia (2011) found that openness (but not fluid reasoning), predicted total creative achievement, whereas intellect predicted fluid reasoning but not total creative achievement. Further research suggests that openness specifically predicts creative achievement in the arts, whereas intellect predicts creative achievement in the sciences (S. B. Kaufman et al., 2015)

Openness to experience is closely related to integrative complexity, the capacity and willingness to find links among multiple competing perspectives (Suedfeld, Tetlock, & Streufert, 1992). Many studies have found that openness to experience and integrative complexity are significantly correlated, but have not decomposed this personality trait into its two subcomponents (openness and intellect). In research examining life stories, McAdams et al. (2004) found that openness to experience predicted the extent to which participants wrote complex narratives including multiple points of view, mixed motivations, complex emotions, and contradictory aspects of the self. Significant correlations between integrative complexity and openness to experience have also been noted among U.S. presidents (Simonton, 2006) and Master of Business Administration students (Tetlock, Peterson, & Berry, 1993).

Openness to experience, integrative complexity, and aging. Staying open to experience with age may play an important role in maintaining cognitive abilities. Williams, Suchy, and Kraybill (2013) found that low openness to experience in older adults was a marker of cognitive decline over the next 12 months. This was especially true of older adults who scored low on aesthetics (i.e., participants who reported being insensitive to and uninterested in art and beauty), as well as values (e.g., participants who endorsed dogmatic and rigid social, political, and religious values).

Both correlational and longitudinal studies have shown, however, that people tend to either remain stable or decrease in openness to experience as well as tolerance of ambiguity with age (Costa et al., 1986; Diehl, Coyle, & Labouvie-Vief, 1996; Soldz & Vaillant, 1999; Wortman, Lucas, & Donnellan, 2012).

We are not aware of any aging studies that have separated intellect from openness, but we hypothesize that the intellect component will be more vulnerable to the effects of aging, because of its reliance on fluid reasoning, whereas openness will remain stable or increase with age, because of its independence of cognitive ability. This prediction is also in line with research showing that linguistic markers of cognitive complexity (e.g., using causation or insight words, etc.), as well as "wise reasoning" (a construct closely related to integrative thinking), significantly increase with age (de Vries & Lehman, 1996; Grossmann, Na, Varnum, Kitayama, & Nisbett, 2012; Pennebaker & Stone, 2003).

In addition, social factors may also foster more openness with age. In academic fields, scholars probably feel much freer to seriously consider new (and perhaps outlandish) ideas once they have established themselves and obtained tenure. Thus, social factors likely increase the extent to which people have the willingness to voice original ideas with age, while openness itself may decline. With that said, it is also possible that openness decreases with age, as older people tend to take less risks and tend to be less revolutionary in their ideas (Simonton, 1994). Thus, we cannot yet conclude how, on balance, openness to experience and integrative complexity fare with aging. Nevertheless, our review suggests that openness to experience may lead individuals to seek diverse experiences, which are in turn conducive to creative achievement.

 
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