A Clearer Vision of Open-Mindedness

Friday, March 2, 2018
Catherine Morin

In today’s pluralistic and complex society, open-mindedness is depicted as a virtuous quality. One you must seek to acquire.

With globalization and the constant progress of communication technologies, people increasingly open themselves. We try to understand different cultures, norms, and beliefs.

“Openness” is one of the most sought after attributes by employers. Many influential leaders credit their success to this specific skill.

But how do we define an open-minded person today?

What open-minded means, when it comes to your own beliefs

It is hard to obtain a clear, universal definition of open-mindedness. Everyone has different ways of describing it. Most people claim to be  “open-minded”, making this notion very subjective.

But many people are “closed to the possibility that they’re closed-minded.” That’s according to social science researcher Jeremy E. Sherman, writing in Psychology Today in 2013.

Sherman noticed that people consider those who disagree with them as closed-minded.  How deliciously ironic.

This observation indicates there are misconceptions about what open- and closed-mindedness entail.

Generally speaking, openness refers to the willingness to hear and consider different ideas and to try new things. It is the opposite of dogmatism. One allows old ideas to be tested by new perspectives, the opinions of others.

It’s like the person who learns the word of the day on a thesaurus website. There’s a willingness to achieve personal growth. In this case, at least in the vocabulary department.

One’s open-mindedness often varies in degree across contexts. For example, politics, religion, attitude towards sexual minorities, and social situations. You can see this in a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

But on the whole, open individuals usually accept others’ values and beliefs. An open mind doesn’t instantly reject oppositional opinions as wrong. For Sherman, people are open-minded if they are receptive to strong arguments against their strong beliefs.  

When it comes to leadership, the quality of ‘intellectual humility’ is a major predictor of success.

Journalist and researcher Shane Snow writes about this in the Harvard Business Review. She notes the importance of separating one’s ego from one’s intellect.

It’s about respecting other viewpoints, and feeling secure enough to revise one’s own viewpoint. That is, if one is proved ‘wrong’ or obstructionary.

It’s accepting the fallibility of oneself. This is how you gain a realistic perspective on what is actually going on around you.

Take the case of Ray Dalio, self-made billionaire and founder of the investment firm Bridgewater Associates. He attributes his success to the open-minded culture developed and established in his company.

In his recent book Principles, he explains that having an open mind has helped him recover from major failures. It’s helped him turn around seemingly hopeless situations.

Dalio thinks most people are reluctant to consider information that clashes with their worldview. Yet exploring different ideas and possibilities is critical in making good decisions. You have to leave your comfort zone to succeed.

“I have found triangulating with highly believable people who are willing to have thoughtful disagreements has never failed to enhance my learning and sharpen the quality of my decision making ,” he writes.

Psychology professor Keith Stanovich shows something similar in his book The Rationality Quotient. Actively open minded-thinking is good thinking. Open minded, rational thinking is a cognitive competence.

Philosopher Jason Baehr shares this assessment. We see this in an article called “The Structure of Open-Mindedness” (published online by Cambridge University Press). He puts forward intellectual virtue, being open and moral, as a key goal in learning.

It is easy to understand the importance of developing a curious, accepting philosophy towards life. But can some people be naturally more open-minded? Modern psychology suggests that this attribute is shaped by a specific personality type.

Openness to Experience

Psychologists often use a five-factor model to test the core traits of an individual’s personality.

These categories help understand and predict relationships between various personality types. They are usually measured with questionnaires.

Subjects respond to a series of descriptive statements. They report how accurately the sentences describe their own attitudes.

Often referred to as the “Big Five”, these basic traits are as follows. Extroversion, conscientiousness, neuroticism, agreeableness, and openness to experience.

Psychologists define that last aspect as the degree to which a person is willing to consider new ideas and beliefs, as well as opportunities.

People who score high in it are considered open-minded. That is because this trait measures receptivity to different ideas and situations. They tend to be intellectually curious, creative, and imaginative.

Several reputed psychologists support the “Big Five” personality test. They see it as an effective tool to measure open-mindedness. But some others have dissented from this model.

One common argument is that it does not explain all human personality. Some psychologists feel it neglects other domains. Such as masculinity/feminity, honesty, seductiveness, or religiosity.  

If such traits were part of the test, some people would have way different scores.

Another frequent criticism is that this model is not based on any underlying theory. Even if these five factors exist, their root causes are unknown. It is also argued that it is naive to think participants can choose answers corresponding in a tidy way to their personality.

Creativity, imagination, and willingness to try new experiences are hard to measure. It is possible to wonder if more tangible attributes can be observed among open-minded people.

All told, psychologists still have not found a super accurate way to measure open-mindedness. Yet problems aside, a high score in this trait in the context of a rigorous psychological experiment remains a good indicator. 

Different Visual Perception? 

Recent research indicates that open-mindedness may affect the way people perceive reality. A study published in The Journal of Research in Personality in 2017 even suggests that open-minded individuals are more likely to experience certain visual perceptions

Image credit: Rebloggy

Binocular rivalry

Researchers from the University of Melbourne in Australia recruited 123 volunteers, and gave them the Big Five Personality Test. They measured their levels of extroversion, conscientiousness, neuroticism, agreeableness, and openness to experience.

The researchers then tested who experienced a perceptual phenomenon called binocular rivalry. This occurs when contrasting stimuli are presented simultaneously to each eye. The participants had a red patch in front of an eye, and a green patch in front of the other.

When faced with this kind of incompatible visual information, observers usually switch back and forth between the two images. The brain can only perceive one at a time.

Still, some people are able to merge the two stimuli together in one combined image. For most participants, the colors kept flipping from one to the other. But people who had scored higher on openness were able to see a unified red-green patch.

According to the researchers, this makes sense. Receptivity towards new experiences is linked to creativity.

In an article on their results published in The Conversation, they explain. The ability to combine two images seems “like a ‘creative’ solution to the problem presented by the two incompatible stimuli.”

Open-minded individuals tend to explore information and see various possibilities to resolve issues. These creative inclinations seem to extend to visual perception.

This single test cannot prove that open people literally see the world differently. At the same time, it is interesting to notice that they might have a broader vision. They might be able to observe a given situation from all angles.

It is even possible to think the mental faculties allowing them to perceive two contradictory images at the same time extend further. Towards the ability to consider two opposed ideas equally.

These individuals might be able to acknowledge the value of polarized ideas. And they might tend to contemplate viewpoints that are different from their own.

Researchers at the University of Melbourne wondered. Were open people also susceptible to feeling two incompatible emotions at once? If so, it would be analogous to the two percepts in binocular rivalry.  

They found that the individuals able to mix the two images reported experiencing mixed emotions frequently.

This observation is a good indicator of a generalized ability to perceive and analyze multiple notions at once.

Inattentional Blindness

The same researchers also noticed that those who had scored high in openness were less likely to experience “inattentional blindness.” This visual phenomenon occurs when people focus hard on one feature of a scene. So hard they completely fail to notice a fully-visible, but unexpected stimulus.

Studies of this perceptual effect usually consist in a single critical trial in which an object appears unexpectedly while observers are performing a task. At the end of the trial, participants are asked a series of questions to determine whether or not they saw the unexpected object.

In a famous experiment, volunteers watch this video of people tossing a basketball to one another. They are asked to track the number of passes between the players wearing white.

The Invisible Gorilla Test is one of the best-known studies demonstrating “inattentional blindness.” It was conducted by Daniel Simons of the University of Illinois and Christopher Chabris of Harvard University in 1999. When they did the experiment, they found that half of the people who watched the video missed the gorilla.

Humans constantly filter out what sensory information to focus on. This determines what they perceive. For example, you might be subconsciously ignoring the noise around you or the feeling of your clothes on your skin.

It seems more visual information breaks through into conscious perception for open-minded people. This makes them notice things that others screen out.

Because they look at the world through a larger lens, open-minded individuals often perceive and feel more intensely. As experiments of “inattentional blindness” have shown, they do not screen out as many stimuli as others.

Without a strong filtration system, they may become more attuned to subtle details around them. They may find themselves easily overwhelmed.

Open-Mindedness in the Digital Era

People are increasingly turning to social media as a way of interacting and learning new information. Communication with people from across the globe is much easier with social media. It can promote interactive dialogues that build understanding of different points of view. With instant access to content from all around the world, you can broaden your horizons easily. You can experience foreign cultures, and open oneself up to new norms and traditions.

However, platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram use personalization algorithms. These automatically send specific content to users’ online newsfeed.

People access a huge amount of publications that reinforce their existing views and opinions when they sign in to their account. They rarely get to see posts from the opposite side of the ideological spectrum, which leads to a “filter bubble” or “echo chamber” effect.

Both phrases refer to the fact that social media users only access ideas from like-minded people. This leads to increased polarization and misunderstanding of others.

 “Filter bubbles” illustrate a state of intellectual isolation. They occur when social media algorithms guess what content a user wants to see, based on their usage habits. As a result, users become separated from information that opposes their viewpoints. They are isolated in their own ideological bubbles.

The term “echo chamber” is analogous to an acoustic echo chamber where sounds reverberate in a hollow enclosure. Like-minded people group together on social media and make claims in one specific direction. They find their opinions constantly echoed back to them.

This reinforces their individual beliefs. It makes their viewpoints seem more universally accepted than they really are.

The phrase “filter bubble” is used exclusively to describe online mechanisms of polarized thought. “Echo chamber” refers to both online and offline methods. For example, social media algorithms and popular culture act to condition a person’s beliefs.

Both metaphors illustrate a social phenomenon that can compromise the development of an open mind.

We cannot pretend to have the willingness to contemplate new ideas if we are never exposed to them. There is no room for growth if we keep seeking false validation in what is the echo of our own thoughts. Many social scientists worry about this lack of healthy exposure to opposing and challenging ideas.

A study published in Science in 2015 examined this phenomenon. To understand how social media usage affects attitudes, researchers at Facebook and the University of Michigan observed the usage data of 10.1 million active Facebook users in the United States over a six-month period. The targeted users were people who had reported a political allegiance in their profile.

The scientists analyzed the relationships they had with other users, as well as the type of content these users shared. They noted that, as expected, people tend to group together according to their ideological affiliations.

However, the researchers also noticed that most users also had Facebook friends who shared opposite views. On average, about 20% of a user’s friends have the opposite ideological affiliation.  The study suggests that Facebook users are exposed to more dissenting views than thought.

This can be explained by the fact that Facebook friends are usually people from our immediate environment. Such as coworkers, childhood friends, neighbors, or family members.

Even if these people do not share the same ideological views as us, they are part of our friend list. Because we interact with them on a daily basis or have a special connection with them.

Experiments on platforms like Twitter might have different results. People usually follow users according to the content they share. This would give a better idea of how social media affects openness.

In the end, the best way to keep an open mind is to use the Internet wisely, and to make an effort to consult content that offers varied viewpoints. It may help to follow official news sites that aim to provide a wide range of perspectives. The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, Associated Press News, and BBC claim to offer a balanced view of the world.

Some online articles from newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post now include links to related articles that oppose their editorial line. This allows readers to consider a given situation from multiple angles and to form their own opinion.

Enriching Vision

Psychology attributes openness to a specific personality type. Open individuals seem to exhibit specific traits. Yet anyone can embrace a more open vision.

The intellectual virtues of open-mindedness are clear. Considering the other point of view makes us stronger. Whether one is navigating a pandemic or running a company, accepting new information and pivoting is key to resiliency.

And in today’s interconnected, ever-changing world, it’s easy to access different views and ways of thinking. Considering and embracing new ideas is always possible. Of course, it should be tempered with a healthy amount of critical thinking.

Now that’s a common-sense recipe for a life of enrichment.