Why Openness To Experience Is The Key To Creativity

Want to be more creative? Open yourself up to more experiences.

Why Openness To Experience Is The Key To Creativity
[Image: Flickr user 55Laney69]

Many successful creative people have the same personality trait in common: they are open to new experiences.


Psychologist Art Markman defines “openness to experience” as “the degree to which a person is willing to consider new ideas and opportunities.” This runs along a spectrum: on one end, you have people who love novelty and dig the idea of doing new things and entertaining new ideas; on the other, there are those who like to stay with familiar ideas and tried-and-true activities.

Scott Barry Kaufman, the author of Ungifted and psych writer extraordinaire, recently teased apart the four factors that make up openness. They are:

  • Explicit Cognitive Ability: Traditional measures of intelligence (i.e., IQ tests), including fluid reasoning, mental rotation, verbal analogical reasoning, and working memory.
  • Intellectual Engagement: A drive to engage in ideas, rational thought, and the search for truth.
  • Affective Engagement: A preference for using emotions, gut feelings, and empathy to make decisions.
  • Aesthetic Engagement: A preference for aesthetics, fantasy, and emotional absorption in artistic and cultural stimuli.

You can get a sense of your openness (and where you stand along the spectrum) by taking a look at your social interactions. In Spent, evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller says that regardless of where you are on that spectrum, “those less open than you seem boring, dull, conventional, and conformist, whereas the more open seem eccentric bizarre, disruptive, threatening, or even psychotic.” So if you think everyone around you is boring, then you’re relatively open; if you think they’re all nuts, you’re relatively closed. Here’s how openness is a positive at work–and how to cultivate it correctly.

The underlying question is why openness to experience, which is a matter of inputs, shapes creativity, which is a matter of outputs. To get there, we’ll have to use a gardening analogy. Researchers Edward Necka and Teresa Hlawacz compared bankers and artists in an effort to understand their differences in creativity. Fascinatingly, what made the artists most creative was a tendency toward activity, a “tendency to initiate numerous activities that lead to, or provoke, rich external stimulation.” This richness of input creates a corresponding richness of output, as folks who “score high on activity tend to have many diverse experiences that may be used as a substrate for divergent thinking and creative activity.”

The key, then, is the layer of mindsoil where ideas are able to take root. Steve Jobs once similarly spoke of the benefits of a tendency toward diverse inputs: the bigger your “bag of experiences,” the once-young Apple executive said, the more varied the connections you can make between things–like say, perhaps, technology and the liberal arts.

Hat tip: Scientific American

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.