Of the Big Five personality traits, at least one is a moral imperative

Openness to new experiences, a.k.a. curiosity, is imperative given the accelerating rate of social change

The Big Five personality traits model is the gift that keeps on giving. The more connections I find between the Big Five and other subjects, the more I’m convinced of its validity. As a refresher, the acronym for the Big Five is OCEAN: Openness to new experiences, Concientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. Also, if you’re searching for a decent self-assessment, one that doesn’t require signing up or other hoops, I recommend this one.

The first connection I saw with the Big Five was to Jung’s typologies. Carl Jung, writing in Psychology Types (1921) was right about at least one personality dimension: introversion vs. extraversion. And even though we’ve debunked the Meyers-Briggs test (1944), which was inspired by Jung, the test’s staying power comes from its emphasis on introversion and extraversion. Think of all the introverts on dating sites, proudly displaying INFJ or another four-letter type on their profiles. Jung, and by extension, Meyers and Briggs, were on to something.

The other connection I saw was to the psychology of politics. Even though “left vs. right” oversimplifies most issues, people do exhibit a left-ward and right-ward bias. And when researchers scan the brains of liberals and conservatives and conduct factor analyses on their personalities, they discover that — ding, ding — they can be separated by “openness to new experiences,” one of the Big Five traits. George Lakoff suggested as much in 1996 with his strict dad vs. nurturant mom model of politics, but it’s only recently that we’ve had the brain scans to bolster it. So, if we exclude elusive “undecided” voters, these studies mean that 175 million adult Americans are not only divided into two political camps but that those camps neatly align with two psychological camps as well.

One issue with the Big Five, though, is its labeling. Researchers describe the traits in neutral and inoffensive wording, which probably has helped in the model’s adoption. Each of the traits has pros and cons, and neither one is better than its opposite. For example, these are the pros of being open to new experiences:

  • adventurous and willing to try new things
  • doesn’t get overwhelmed by new stimuli
  • integrates new information and update beliefs regularly
  • is open to different kinds of people

Pros of being closed to new experiences:

  • focused and steady
  • respectful and mindful of traditions
  • holds stable, absolute morals, as opposed to relative ones
  • is down-to-earth

To find the cons of these traits, just flip the signs on this list. For example, people who are open to new experiences are unfocused, and people who are closed to new experiences are unimaginative.

But despite the even-handed language, not all of the traits are equally “good.” By at least one metric, happiness, one of the traits stands out as being better than its opposite: neuroticism. Happiness is higher for low neurotics, and anger and mood-swings are higher for high neurotics.

Likewise, there are other contexts, maybe not as general as happiness, where each trait has its advantages. When it comes to certain careers, some traits are better than others. If you’re in Hollywood, for example, you have to be creative to be successful, and therefore curiosity is an economic advantage. Given Los Angeles’s housing prices, it may even be necessary for survival. It’s no surprise, then, that Hollywood skews liberal.

But if each trait can be advantageous in certain circumstances, is it possible for conditions to change so much that one trait is universally disadvantageous. If all manufacturing jobs get offshored or automated, then all middle-class jobs in the United States could become creative ones. This transformation could explain the conservative uproar coming from the white working class, which otherwise should have been a reliable demographic for Democrats.

But the obsolescence of close-mindedness may not just be limited to shrinking jobs, but also to trends in diversity. Every few months seems to highlight a formerly marginalized group. One time, “It Gets Better” PSAs helped bring attention to gay teenagers who’ve been bullied. Another time, Caitlyn Jenner dominated magazine covers and brought trans issues to the forefront. Seeing her image sprinkled all over the grocery checkout aisles would have caused more than a mild outrage had she transitioned twenty years ago. With this constant parade of unfamiliars, it’s no surprise, then, that sparking culture wars is the go-to political strategy for Republicans, who have traditionally appealed to the conservative brain.

But this diversity parade may not just be a minor nuisance, but rather indicative of the new, globalized world. In this world, openness to new experiences may be essential for survival. If you get an aneurysm every time some unfamiliar group gets trotted out, it’s going to be hard to get along. In which case, it’s possible that a core personality trait is not just becoming a financial liability, but a moral one too.

A possible connection between personality and morality first popped into my mind during new member orientation at Galvanize, a co-working space I recently joined in Austin, TX. The orientation was presented by Galvanize’s community manager, a man in his mid-20s, who began with a list of the community’s values. The first one was “Stay Curious,” after which he paused and said, “Honestly, this might be the only value that matters here. At least for me, this means everything.” Was his focus on curiosity a generational thing? They used to say, “curiosity killed the cat”; Now you don’t hear that anymore. Maybe curiosity is a young Millenial thing. After all, this is the generation that eschews spectator sports for music festivals; that eschews preset television programming for the cornucopia of YouTube. Either way, it made me wonder.