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 that one must seek to acquire. With globalization and the constant progress of communication technologies, people increasingly open themselves to different cultures, norms, and beliefs. Openness is one of the most sought after attributes by employers, and many influential leaders credit  their success to this specific skill. But how do we define an open-minded person in 2018? 

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

As social science researcher Jeremy E. Sherman wrote in Psychology Today in 2013, many people are “closed to the possibility that they’re closed-minded.” Throughout his research,  he noticed that people tend to consider those who disagree with them as displaying closed-mindedness. The irony of this observation clearly indicates that there are misconceptions about what open and closed minds entail.

Generally speaking, openness refers to the willingness to hear and consider different ideas and to try new things. Open individuals usually accept others' values and beliefs; an open mind doesn't quickly reject oppositional opinions as wrong. According to Sherman, people are sufficiently open-minded if they are receptive to strong arguments against their committed beliefs.  

Of course, one's open mindedness can vary in degree across contexts (politics, religion, attitude towards sexual minorities, etc.) and social situations, as noted in a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

When it comes to leadership, the quality of 'intellectual humility' is a major predictor of success. Journalist and researcher Shane Snow, writing in Harvard Business Review, notes the importance of being able to separate one's ego from intellect, and respectfully accept other viewpoints (and feeling secure enough to revise one's own viewpoint if proved 'wrong' or obstructionary), because this is how one gains a realistic perspective on what is actually going on around them.

Self-made billionaire and founder of the investment firm Bridgewater Associates Ray Dalio attributes his success to the open-minded culture he 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 and turn around seemingly hopeless situations. 

Dalio thinks that even though most people are reluctant to consider information that is inconsistent with their worldview, exploring different ideas and possibilities outside one's comfort zone is critical in making good decisions. “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.

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 employ a five-factor model to evaluate the core traits of an individual's personality. These categories are used to help understand and predict relationships between various personality types. They are usually measured with questionnaires. Subjects respond to a series of descriptive statements, reporting how accurately the sentences describe their own attitudes.

Commonly referred to as the “Big Five”, these basic traits include 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. 

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

While several reputed psychologists support the “Big Five” personality test and see it as an effective tool to measure open-mindedness, some others have dissented from this model. One common argument is that it does not explain all of 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 probably score differently in openness to experience.   

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 possible to think that participants can easily choose answers that correspond to any desired personality.

Although psychologists still have not found the most accurate way to measure this quality, a high score in this trait in the context of a rigorous psychological experiment remains a good indicator.  

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

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 to measure 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, as the brain can only perceive one at a time. However, 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, because receptivity towards new experiences is closely linked to creativity. In an article on their results published in The Conversation, they explain that  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 actively explore information and see various possibilities to resolve issues, and these creative inclinations seem to extend to visual perception. 

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

It is even possible to think that the mental faculties allowing them to perceive two contradictory images at the same time extend to the ability to consider two opposed ideas equally. These individuals are possibly able to acknowledge the value of polarized ideas and tend to contemplate viewpoints that are different from their own.

Researchers at the University of Melbourne wondered if open people were also susceptible to feel two incompatible emotions at once, analogous to the two percepts in binocular rivalry.  They indeed found that the individuals able to mix the two images reported experiencing mixed emotions frequently in their lives.

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 so hard on one feature of a scene that 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 were asked to watch this video of people tossing a basketball to one another, and 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 that more visual information breaks through into conscious perception for open-minded people, making 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 than other people. 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, and 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. With instant access to content from all around the world, you can broaden your horizons easily, experience foreign cultures, and open oneself up to new norms and traditions. Because they make communication with people from across the globe much easier, social media can promote interactive dialogues that build understanding of different points of view.

However, platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram use personalization algorithms that automatically send specific content to users' online newsfeed. People therefore 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 lead 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, and that this leads to increased polarization and misunderstanding of others.

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

The term “echo chamber” is analogous to an acoustic echo chamber where sounds reverberate in a hollow enclosure. When like-minded people group together on social media and make claims in one specific direction, they may find their opinions constantly echoed back to them, which reinforces their individual beliefs and makes their viewpoints seem more universally accepted than they really are.

While the phrase “filter bubble” is used exclusively to describe online mechanisms of thoughts polarization, “echo chamber” refers to both online and offline methods. For example, social media algorithms and popular culture act simultaneously to condition a person's beliefs. Both metaphors nonetheless illustrate a current 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. In order 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 several Facebook friends who shared opposite views. On average, about 20% of a user’s friends have the opposite ideological affiliation.  The study therefore suggests that Facebook users are exposed to more different views than previously 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.

It can be assumed that experiments on platforms like Twitter, where people usually follow users according to the content they share, would give a better idea of how social media affects .

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.

Many online articles from newspaper 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

Although psychology attributes openness to a specific personality type, and open individuals seem to exhibit specific traits, anyone can embrace a more open vision. In today's interconnected, ever-changing world, it's easy to access different views and ways of thinking. The willingness to consider and embrace new ideas, tempered with a healthy amount of critical thinking—now that's a commonsensical recipe for a life of enrichment.