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Openness to Experience and Creative Achievement

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Openness to experience– the drive for cognitive exploration of inner and outer experience– is the personality trait most consistently associated with creativity.

But there are many different forms of cognitive exploration.

Just to name a few, openness to experience comprises intellectual curiosity, complex problem solving and reasoning, imagination, artistic and aesthetic interests, and emotional and fantasy richness.

Recent research suggests that the various forms of engagement that comprise openness to experience can be broken down into two main aspects:

  • Intellect: cognitive engagement with abstract and semantic information primarily through reasoning.
  • Openness: cognitive engagement with sensory and perceptual information.

But can we break down openness to experience even further, and are the distinctions useful for our understanding of creative achievement?

I think so.

Four Factors of Openness to Experience

That was the main question motivating my recent paper “Opening up Openness to Experience: A Four-Factor Model and Relations to Creative Achievement in the Arts and Sciences.”

I administered multiple measures of cognitive ability, personality, and thinking styles to 146 British high school students. I intentionally used a wide-ranging test battery, including measures of verbal, spatial, and fluid reasoning, working memory, the NEO Personality Inventory, Big Five Aspect Scales, and Rational-Experiential Inventory.

Using a statistical technique called the Bass-Ackwards technique, I found that openness to experience can be most parsimoniously broken down into four factors:

  • Explicit Cognitive Ability: This factor consisted primarily of traditional measures of intelligence (i.e., IQ tests), including fluid reasoning, mental rotation, verbal analogical reasoning, and working memory. I called this factor “Explicit Cognitive Ability” instead of “Intelligence” because I don’t think that traditional measures of intelligence do a good job capturing implicit forms of cognition. For instance, I’ve shown that implicit learning ability is not well correlated with performance on traditional measures of intelligence (see “Implicit Learning as an Ability“). This factor didn’t show any relations to any personality variables other than openness to experience.
  • Intellectual Engagement: The essence of this factor was a drive to engage in ideas, rational thought, and the search for truth. Those scoring high on this factor tended to be more industrious, assertive, and persevering– dispositions associated with goal-directed behavior. Note that there was no correlation between this factor and compassion.
  • Affective Engagement: The essence of this factor was a preference for using emotions, gut feelings, and empathy to make decisions. Those scoring high on this factor tended to be more volatile, compassionate, enthusiastic, assertive, and impulsive. In fact, the correlation between this factor and compassion was quite high– .64.
  • Aesthetic Engagement: The essence of this factor was a preference for aesthetics, fantasy, and emotional absorption in artistic and cultural stimuli. A common theme of this factor was a search for beauty. Those scoring high on this factor tended to be more compassionate, enthusiastic, assertive, and impulsive, but they also tended to be less conscientious — particularly less industrious and orderly. Also, this factor wasn’t as strongly related to compassion as affective engagement.

Creative Achievement

Now that we have a good feel for the flavor of these four factors, let’s see how they are related to different forms of creative achievement.

I investigated ten different domains of creativity: Visual Arts, Music, Dance, Architectural design, Creative writing, Humor, Inventions, Scientific Discovery, Theater and film, and Culinary Arts.

Collapsing across the arts and sciences, this is what I found:

The two main factors most strongly associated with Intellect– Intellectual Engagement and Explicit Cognitive Ability– were more relevant to creative achievement in the sciences than the arts, whereas the two main factors most strongly associated with Openness– Affective Engagement and Aesthetic Engagement– were more relevant to creative achievement in the arts than the sciences. What’s more, these results suggest that Affective Engagement may be detrimental to creative achievement in the sciences.

Interestingly, when I considered all four factors at the same time, I found that Intellectual Engagement was a better predictor of scientific creative achievement than Explicit Cognitive Ability.


I think these findings have some important implications. The first thing that jumped out at me is the importance of separating IQ from intellectual curiosity. While Explicit Cognitive Ability and Intellectual Engagement were related, the more important variable driving high levels of creative achievement in the sciences was Intellectual Engagement. These findings are consistent with the work of Sophie von Stumm and colleagues who found that a “hungry mind” was a core predictor of academic achievement.

Another thing that jumped out at me were the different associations with compassion. The two factors that were most strongly associated with compassion– Affective Engagement and Aesthetic Engagement– were also the factors most strongly associated with creative achievement in the arts. I’d like to see much more research on the linkages among openness to experience, compassion, and creativity, including a wider range of creative domains (e.g., leadership, social entrepreneurship).

My findings also have implications for dual-process theories of human cognition.

In recent years, dual-process theories of cognition have become increasingly required for explaining cognitive, personality, and social processes. Although the precise specifications of the theories differ, there are some unifying themes.

“Type 1” processes consist of a “grab-bag” of different (and not necessarily correlated) processes, including affect, intuition, evolutionary evolved modules, implicit learning, latent inhibition, and the firing of learned associations. According to Keith Stanovich and Maggie Toplak, the defining feature of Type 1 processing is autonomy: “the execution of Type 1 processes is mandatory when their triggering stimuli are encountered, and they are not dependent on input from high-level control systems.”

In contrast, the defining feature of “Type 2” processes is the ability to sustain decoupled representations—in other words, to sustain thinking while keeping real-world representations separate from cognitive representations. According to Stanovich and Toplak, “decoupling processes enable one to distance oneself from representations of the world so that they can be reflected upon and potentially improved.”

The results of my study suggest that Intellect– Explicit Cognitive Ability and Intellectual Engagement– is more strongly related to Type 2 processing relative to Type 1 processing, whereas Openness– Affective Engagement and Aesthetic Engagement– is more strongly related to Type 1 processing relative to Type 2 processing. Although one notable exception is engagement with fantasy and imagination, which most certainly recruits more of a balanced mix of Type 1 and Type 2 processes.

It might be fruitful for researchers to place openness to experience within this dual-process framework.


These results support the need to separate different forms of cognitive engagement when trying to predict creative achievement. Different forms of engagement are related to different modes of information processing. What’s more, people differ in their drive to engage in various aspects of the human experience, and these drives are related to different forms of creative achievement.

© 2013 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved

Note: My colleagues and I have since replicated the basic associations among Intellect and Openness with creative achievement in the arts and sciences across multiple samples, using wider age ranges. We are currently writing up those results for publication, and I will be happy to share them with you once the data is published.

image source: eye on psych

Scott Barry Kaufman About the Author: Scott Barry Kaufman is Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute and a researcher in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, where he investigates the measurement and development of imagination. His latest book is Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined. Follow on Twitter @sbkaufman.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. gs_chandy 6:15 am 11/26/2013

    Suggestion: The seminal contributions of the late John N. Warfield to systems science should be most useful to enable and strengthen such studies. More information about Warfield’s work is available at: and from the “John N. Warfield Collection”, held at the library of George Mason University, where Warfield was Professor Emeritus – see;query=; .

    Some developments from Warfield’s work give us a powerful aid to problem solving and decision making that I call the ‘One Page Management System’ (OPMS) – a tool that can be effectively applied by any individual or group to accomplish any chosen Mission of current interest. The OPMS enables users to put together currently available ideas into a comprehensive system to help accomplish the system. The OPMS uses our inherent human capabilities of strengthening weak ideas and rejecting bad ideas to ensure effective Action Planning.


    Link to this

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