Openness to Experience – That Liberal Je Ne Sais Quoi

November 5, 2013
Forgot where he put his weed.

Looking for the anthology on existentialism, or maybe just his stash of weed.

Whatever you think of the Big Five personality model, most of its traits are easy to understand. Extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness are all pretty much what they sound like. Neuroticism is a little more problematic since it deals with emotional instability but only in regard to negative emotions, but it’s still easy to understand what it means – being anxious, worrisome, sometimes depressed. But then there is openness to experience. You’d think that would be equally straight-forward: being into new experiences, like travelling and experiencing other cultures, having broad interests, making new friends, maybe sexual experimentation and trying drugs as well. Not so much.

The Official Picture

Here is a list of words and phrases that psychologists feel characterizes this trait,

Intellectual, imaginative, artistic, cultured, refined, original, insightful, curious, creative, independent and divergent thinkers, appreciation of art and beauty, willingness to consider new ideas, unconventional.

And here are some test items that measure openness,

Have a rich vocabulary.

Have a vivid imagination.

Have excellent ideas.

Quick to understand things.

Use difficult words.

Spend time reflecting on things.

Am full of ideas.

Carry the conversation to a higher level.

Catch on to things quickly.

Love to think up new ways of doing things.

Love to read challenging material.

Am good at many things.

Or in reverse,

Have difficulty understanding abstract ideas.

Am not interested in abstract ideas.

Do not have a good imagination.

Try to avoid complex people.

Have difficulty imagining things.

Avoid difficult reading material.

Will not probe deeply into a subject.

Intelligence and Creativity

When looking at these items, it’s pretty easy to notice two separate factors, one of intelligence,

Intellectual, have a rich vocabulary, quick to understand things, spend time reflecting on things, catch on to things quickly. (Whoever makes these tests clearly has a thing for the word “thing”.)

And one of creativity,

Have vivid imagination, have excellent ideas, full of ideas, love to think up new ways of doing things.

This is not something I personally discovered just now. Already back in 1981 psychologists John Digman and Naomi Takemoto-Chock analyzed the openness factor and found two sub-factors, “one of which appeared to be concerned more with intelligence, the other with matters of culture.” Others have referred to these factors as “reflection and curiosity/experimentation/hypotheses testing.” (Couldn’t find a link to the article so if you have one please let me know.)

Not that there is anything wrong with combining two traits into one. The trait of psychopathy is a combination of impulsivity and lack of empathy. That’s a meaningful construct because while both factors are relatively harmful the combination produces a type of person that make up less than one percent of the population but 20 percent of all convicts. And many of the other prisoners are afraid of them. That effect makes it a useful construct.

Openness, however, is supposed to be a broad factor of personality, a basic building block that only breaks down into aspects of itself, so-called facets. Like the shades of a color. Although some facets of other Big Five factors are questionable, the overall picture is clear – they are really aspects of the same thing, not combinations of essentially different traits. The same goes for broad factors of other models, like those of Eysenck, Cloninger or the MBTI, based on Jung’s theory.  So you might say such a factor is a contradiction in terms – it’s not broad or basic, it’s narrow and specific.

The Correlates – In Search of the Je Ne Sais Quois Factor

Unless of course you think of intelligence and creativity as two aspects of some underlying factor that is for some reason called openness to experience. But what would that factor be? We all know what conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism and extraversion boil down to, but what is the core of openness to experience? It’s clearly not being literally open to experience because sensation seekers and the similar novelty seekers are very open to various experiences and measures of those only correlate modestly with openness. Perhaps the behavioral correlates of openness can give us a hint. Unsurprisingly, it correlates to measures of intelligence and creativity but that’s to be expected since it measures exactly those traits in the tests. Is there some other correlates that suggests an underlying factor behind both of these?

Liberal values. A liberal attitude has consistently been linked to openness (as has conscientiousness to conservatism). There is some research to suggest that liberalism is linked to intelligence, although this study is of moderate quality. And artists, generally thought to be a liberal group, do score about half a standard deviation higher than non-artist according to a big meta-study made by psychologist Gregory Feist. So this correlate clearly supports the idea of a two-factor trait rather than an underlying factor of openness.

Entrepreneurship. Openness appears to be a part of the entrepreneurial personality (along with high extraversion and conscientiousness and low agreeableness and neuroticism). But this is almost by definition a matter of creativity and most likely to some degree intelligence, so again nothing lurking beneath these two factors.

Migration. People high on openness tend to move around more, both within and between countries. Could be something beyond intelligence and creativity. I don’t see it, but let me know if you do.

Extramarital Affairs. This has not been properly established. There is a huge global study on this that found no link between openness and infidelity. (Instead it found this to be a matter of low agreeableness and low conscientiousness.)

Trying new foods. This sounds like creativity maybe in conjunction with a liberal appreciation of other cultures.  And of course a bit of sensation seeking since as I mentioned before this trait has a modest correlation to openness.

Tattoos and piercing. I haven’t found any evidence that this relates to intelligence or even creativity. On the other hand, what underlying factor of openness would it be an indication of?

The Mystic Component

Dreams. People who score high on openness remember their dreams and often use their dreams to solve problems. This may be something that isn’t just a matter of intelligence or creativity or a combination of both. I have yet to see any research to confirm it but it’s a possibility perhaps suggesting that openness is some form of transcendent quality.

Spirituality. This somewhat vague dimension of religiousness, often defined more as a quest than a belief, has been found to correlate with openness.

Schizotypy. This trait, which is basically schizophrenia light, is also linked to openness.

This certainly looks like a candidate for an underlying factor but it’s most likely not. In a large high quality study of religion and intelligence, psychologist Gary Lewis found a correlation between spirituality and IQ of -0.05, which he generously refers to as support of the stronger inversed relation found by Kanazawa and others, but in reality it indicates that there is no relation between the two whatsoever. Other research has shown schizotypy to be linked to creativity so it would seem this mystic component belongs in that sub-factor.

Susan Sarandon - the poster girl for openness. Looks nice, a bit a mix between a Disney character and Mona Lisa.

Susan Sarandon – the poster girl for openness. Looks nice, like a mix between a Disney character and Mona Lisa.

In Any Way Useful?

But even if openness fails miserably, in my opinion, as a broad factor of personality it could still be useful. The two-factor trait of psychopathy has relevance in many situations, indeed, no one would find it irrelevant to know if the person in front of them is a psychopath or not.

Sadly, this doesn’t seem to be the case with openness. The correlates I’ve mentioned above represent a large portion of what we know about this trait. And they don’t suggest any real need for this trait at all. They can all be reduced to either intelligence or creativity or a unsynergistic combination of the two. With the possible exception of something like migration and tattoos and piercing. Compare this with just a few correlates of conscientiousness like divorce rate, overweight and health, school and work performance and leadership. It’s just very hard to understand what use psychology (or anyone) can have of the trait openness to experience.

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

And yet, if we combine all the features and correlates into a portrait we might find a clue to have this trait has become so prominent in personality psychology. The open person is of high intelligence and presumably also creative. He (or she) is a liberal with interests that lean more towards the humanities and soft science than hard science. He is not an atheist but also not part of traditional religion – a searcher rather than a dogmatic person. To me, this sounds a bit like a well-educated hippie, a White Californian, like for instance the always interesting blogger Santi Tafarella. But more than anything else, it sounds like a psychologist.



The Study on Intelligence and Religion That You Weren’t Supposed to Hear About

March 5, 2013
Yoda - the beautiful union of intelligence and spirituality (and possibly also dyslexia).

Yoda – the beautiful union of intelligence and spirituality (and possibly also dyslexia).

Numerous studies have consistently arrived at one and the same conclusion: religious people are less intelligent than atheists. So maybe we should accept this fact and move on. Nah, just kidding. On the contrary, when behavioural scientists all come up with the same result it’s time to get suspicious. The normal thing in this field is a variety of results.

So, now that we’re all duly suspicious, the next step is critical scrutiny. I’ll just look at some of the major studies in recent time, but it should give you an idea of the situation.


In 2008Danish psychologist Helmut Nyborg conducted a study that showed that atheists scored an average of 1.95 IQ points higher than agnostics, 3.82 points higher than liberal persuasions, and 5.89 IQ points higher than dogmatic persuasions. This may sound impressive but Nyborg’s sample was made up of children age 12-17. It is well known that both intelligence and personality are under much larger environmental influence during childhood than in adulthood. Nyborg himself noted that religion declines under this period but failed to see how this makes the study flawed. Whatever the environmental factor is – peer pressure, rebellion etc – it decreases with time. This sort of short-term environmental influence goes for intelligence as well. It becomes stable once you reach young adulthood. So young people make a horrible sample for making general conclusions of how religion and intelligence might be related.


The same year British psychologist Richard Lynn (together with Nyborg) conducted a similar study. He simply compared the national averages of intelligence and rates of disbelief in God in 137 nations, making up 95 percent of the world’s population. Lynn found a very high correlation of 0.6 between these two variables. While this design appears to give the final answer, it is in fact measuring widely different countries which makes it very problematic. On such problem is that if we look at the big picture most nations in the world have an IQ close to 100 and then we have the Muslim nations that average around 80-85. So a large part of Lynn’s findings is about Islam, not religion in general.  If we restrict this sample to Western nations the correlation drops to 0.42. Lynn also admits that the surveys on religious disbelief may have problems with low response rates, being representative of the population etc. It remains an open question how much further the correlation would drop if we could adjust for this factors but we can’t so it really isn’t more than guesswork.


The third major study in recent years was conducted by Japanese psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa, who of course corrected the persistent flaw of using children in his samples. Well, kind of. He used participants aged 18-28 to measure religiousness but then took the same participants IQs at age 12-17 so it’s not much of an improvement. His sample was also the 75 percent remains of an original sample which leaves the question of how representative it was open. Kanazawa also made another mistake in how he measured religiousness. Rather than using a multidimensional test to separate quality and quantity he merely had people answer how religious they were on a scale from 1 to 5.  A fundamentalist will no doubt claim to be “very religious” and score a 5. If his intelligence is low (and there is something to suggest this, more on that later on) then that would contribute to the relation between religion and IQ by suggesting that a non-fundamentalist is essentially the same kind of person but with a slightly weaker faith. There are various ways a person can be religious but Kanazawa suggests this is a matter of degrees and in doing so everyone gets to be stupid on behalf of the fundamentalist. Furthermore he uses a simple vocabulary test as a proxy for IQ. Given all these problems, Kanazawa finds that atheists average around 103 in IQ and the very religious at 97. With all the crap he has been pulling I suspect even his fans were a little disappointed with such a meagre result.

Gary J. Lewis?

Although these three studies have been very publicized and quoted, there was a study conducted by psychologist Gary J. Lewis and colleagues at the University of Edinburgh in 2011 that never got much attention. This study actually used an adult sample (mean age 48), measured several aspects of religion and featured a composite measure of intelligence. It did have some limitations in that the sample was mainly White and only concerned itself with Christianity. But it should provide a pretty good picture of the relation between Christianity and intelligence among White Americans.  An especially interesting feature was that it controlled for the personality trait Openness to experience, relevant to both intelligence and religiousness.  So what did they find? Well, they did actually find that religious people are less intelligent, but the results may still come as a surprise. Here is the gist of it from the article,

 The results indicated that intelligence is significantly negatively associated with five of the six measures of religious belief, confirming previous work (Bertsch & Pesta, 2009; Kanazawa, 2010; Lynn et al.,2009; Nyborg, 2009). Certainty about these findings is enhanced by the fact that, in the present study, these relationships to intelligence remained after we controlled for both openness and education, two potentially confounding factors. It should be noted, however, that the effect sizes were small for all associations with intelligence, the largest being the modest intelligence–fundamentalism link (β=−.13), with all other associations estimated at less than β=−.10.

Note the level of these correlations. It’s a well-known fact that variables of this kind always correlate with each other so small correlations are to be taken with a pinch of salt. Here is one take on correlation levels from David Buss & Randy Larsen’s textbook (which I highly recommend) Personality Psychology: Domains of Knowledge About Human Nature (2010),

Although what is considered large or small depends on many factors, social scientists have adopted a general convention. Correlations around .10 are considered small; those around .30 are considered medium; and those around .50 or greater are considered large (Cohen & Cohen, 1975).

So, four of six measures of religiousness showed less than small correlations, a level you might call negligible. Spirituality was unrelated to intelligence, and, perhaps most surprising, fundamentalism (of the Christian variety that is) showed only a small correlation of -0.13.

We Are All Stupid in Our Own Way (Except Me)

Now, the higher quality of this study means that the correlation can be taken more seriously. But at the same time the result indicate that not even the fundamentalists are very unintelligent. This may seem puzzling but fundamentalists are mainly considered stupid because the deviate from the norm.  Consider for instance the mainstream delusions of Optimist Bias. This refers to how ordinary people have an optimism which goes against common sense. Typically the majority of all people believe that they have a lower than average risk of becoming alcohol dependent, catch an STD or have a heart attack. This rosy outlook is of course mathematically impossible but those who engage in this sort of thinking are not in general considered stupid, most likely because they are in majority.

And What About Openness?

I almost forgot the interesting trait known as openness which is known to be related to intelligence as well as a liberal attitude. It was actually slightly related to two measures of religiousness, spirituality and mindfulness, while unrelated to the others, with the exception of fundamentalism which it was slightly inversely linked to (-0.12) – which is pretty much what you’d expect. Another interesting finding is that fundamentalism was unrelated to both sex and gender, contradicting the notion of this person as a middle-aged or older man.

Hopefully, there will be more high-quality studies like this one to put the religious-people-are-so-stupid research to rest. The interactions of intelligence, religiousness and personality are very interesting and deserve a better fate than to be skewed and dumbed down for ideological purposes.

%d bloggers like this: