The Number One Predictor of Creativity? Openness to Experience
Researchers are getting closer to understanding the functional underpinnings of creativity, and now believe it’s intimately tied to an individual’s drive to explore and discover new things.
In their new book, Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire reveal that openness to new experience is the “strongest and most consistent personality trait that predicts creative achievement.” If you consider yourself a science-minded person to whom this does not apply, think again: Kaufman and Gregoire found this to be true of creative achievements in both the arts and sciences.
Let’s take a look at why.
What Is Openness to Experience?
Ever heard of the “big five” personality trait theory? First developed in the late 19th century, the “big five” theory states that, given the kinds of personality-related words a culture’s lexicon contains, you can usually extract five main personality traits that exist within that culture: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. These same five traits have been found reflected in both the personalities and lexicons of English speakers, Japanese speakers, German speakers, to name a few. Of the five traits, openness to experience has been found to be most highly correlated with, and even essential to, creative achievement in the arts and sciences.
“Openness to experience… is the single strongest and most consistent personality trait that predicts creative achievement,” write Kaufman and Gregoire. “For not only artists but innovators of all stripes, novel experiences provide the crucial tissue of real-world material that can be spun into original work.”
But what qualifies as “openness,” exactly?
According to Kaufman and Gregoire, openness as a personality trait “hinges on engagement and exploration” and can take on many forms, “from a love of solving complex problems in math, science and technology, to a voracious love of learning, to an inclination to ask the big questions and seek a deeper meaning in life, to exhibiting intense emotional reactions to music and art.”
People who have a high level of openness to experience tend to become visionary tech entrepreneurs, world travelers, spiritual seekers, and original thinkers.
In his own research, Kaufman found three major types of cognitive engagement making up the core of openness: intellectual engagement, affective engagement, and aesthetic engagement.
1. Intellectual engagement:
an interest in searching for truth; a love of problem solving; a drive to engage with ideas
2. Affective engagement:
wanting to explore the full depths of human emotion; a preference for using gut feeling, emotions, empathy, and compassion to make decisions
3. Aesthetic engagement:
exhibiting a drive toward exploring fantasy and art; a tendency to experience emotional absorption in beauty
Kaufman found intellectual engagement to be associated with creative achievement in the sciences and affective engagement and aesthetic engagement to be linked with artistic creativity.
Crucially, his research also revealed that the desire to learn and discover “seemed to have significantly more bearing on creative accomplishments than cognitive ability did.” People with high levels of cognitive engagement with imagination, emotions, and beauty “were more likely to make significant artistic creative achievements than people who were only high in IQ or divergent thinking ability.” The drive to learn and discover was also a better predictor of scientific creative achievement than IQ was.
How Openness to Experience Leads to Creativity
There may be a neurological basis for openness, one that starts with dopamine. Contrary to popular belief, dopamine isn’t always about experiencing pleasure; it can be about seeking it, too. In other words, for some people, the seeking is the pleasure, regardless of the result.
“At the broadest level, dopamine facilitates psychological plasticity, a tendency to explore and engage flexibly with new things, in both behavior and thinking,” Kaufman explains. “Plasticity leads us to engage with uncertainty—whether it is pondering a new app to meet a consumer demand or questioning the next step in our own life path—exploring the unknown and finding reward in seeking its positive potential.”
That’s the key, right there: finding reward in seeking its positive potential. Where some of us might be deterred by the potentially negative consequences of seeking new experiences—failure, distraction, humiliation, uncertain outcomes—people who are more open to experience seem to believe that the potential of positive consequences is, in and of itself, worth the risk. It’s that “shoot for the moon and you’ll at least land among the stars” mentality. This is less of a distinction between optimism and pessimism than a distinction between different values: some people value the expectation and fulfillment of known rewards; others value the opportunity to experience new (and therefore more, potentially greater) rewards.
Regardless of which camp you call your home, Kaufman says the latter tend to be more creative simply because they’re exposed to more—and more varied—stimuli, which both derives and results from higher brain plasticity.
“With plasticity comes enhanced cognitive and behavioural engagement and exploration and, frequently, a commitment to personal growth. Of course, there is no guarantee that our open engagement will yield a positive outcome. For most creative people, however, the engagement itself is enough if it provides fodder for innovation. Indeed, research shows that psychological plasticity is associated with high levels of idea generation, engagement with everyday creative activities, and publicly recognised creative achievement.”
If you’re thinking the relationship between creativity and openness to experience sounds a little chicken-or-egg, that’s because it is: Do people who seek novel experiences end up being more creative, or do creative people end up seeking novel experiences? When you frame creativity as a byproduct of a personality type, as Kaufman and Gregoire do, it seems more variable—something you can acquire, even if you have a different personality type. If you frame it as an inborn trait that leads to openness, which in turn leads to more creativity, then it seems more fixed. Researchers don’t really know which way it is, but one thing is clear: If you want to be more creative, you have to be willing to surround yourself with new stimuli.
As Kaufman puts it, “It bears repeating: creativity is all about making new connections.”