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Our Concept of Openness Is Wrong

It seems to me that there are at least five different kinds of openness.

1) Novelty seeking.

2) Diminished threat awareness.

3) Sagacity; broad mindedness.

4) Epistemic humility.

5) Empathy. The ability to imagine what it must be like to experience the circumstances of others and/or to see the world as they do.

All five are distinctly different qualities or aspects of human psychology. They are not one and the same. Nor are they interchangeable. It is wrong to think or act as if they ARE the same. It is wrong to conflate them.

But that’s exactly what Western culture does. “Openness” is assumed to mean all five.

AND all five are assumed to be more common among liberals

AND are assumed to be less common among conservatives.

But the reality is that only one or the other, or both, of the first two are more common among liberals. The rest are more common among conservatives.

It’s wrong to think that people like Thomas Sowell, WF Buckley, Russell Kirk, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Milton Friedman, etc. did not possess the qualities of broad minded sagacity or epistemic humility, or openness to new ideas. If anything they were MORE open, broad minded, able to understand others who disagreed with them, empathetic, sagacious, OPEN, than their contemporaries on the left.

It CAN be argued, however, that their counterparts on the left were, and still are, NOT open.

But the opposite is assumed as truth.

Liberals are assumed to be higher in all five different types of openness, and conservatives lower.

It is a false assumption.

This is another example of how liberal hegemony over not just academic social science but western thought and culture in general harms both.

What’s assumed to be true isn’t.


4 thoughts on “Our Concept of Openness Is Wrong

  1. This is a good exercise, because you’re right, Openness can be a generalized proxy for right living for liberals; it acts as a kind of moral center for us, so we loop things in that aren’t part of it. You’re not really defining your terms or context, which is fine, but the personality dimension openness from the Big 5 theory, which is the most popular personality theory, has openness summed up pretty much as your number 1, novelty seeking, which accords with my own research. It’s hard to overemphasize how general that impulse is. It entails creative pursuits, imagination, adventure-seeking, fantasy, and both personal and interpersonal emotional exploration.

    The rest can be argued to be correlated or not. Threat sensitivity is a correlate, I think, because tied up in the oil-and-water relationship between openness and orderliness is a dichotomy between them in the more fundamental issue of boundary use; one highlights and celebrates useful boundaries, which is a good way to conceptualize a tendency to systematically define and address threat; while the other, in the spirit of novelty-seeking, tries to systematically reject or overcome barriers, depending in a sense on an exploration mindset that assumes threat to be low. Sagacity I’d submit has either little or nothing to do with openness; wading through a lot of novelty as an approach to life can very well make you broad-minded and wise, but it can also lead to forms of intolerance, and otherwise have nothing to do with growing sagacity, like many lifestyles. Epistemic humility, if I’m understanding the term, is similar to sagacity; if there’s any correlation, it can’t be strong.

    There’s overwhelming evidence that empathy is correlated with openness– it’s actually part of the definition, tied in very closely to the seeking of novelty, in the interpersonal and emotional front– but as I recall you attach to a notion of empirical or useful empathy, and that’s entirely different. Liberals are high in the feeling of compassion, and being high in that feeling is strongly correlated to openness in an intuitive way: being about eliminating boundaries in life makes it exciting to relate to others more intensely, because we’re such social beings that a general novelty fixation has a strong social element. However, turning that feeling into actual help, a useful compassion, isn’t a liberal characteristic; that’s a conservative capability, as a great deal of evidence validates.

    Since general novelty-seeking is such a strong value for us, we can tend to be intolerant of those who don’t share that trait. We seem to justify this by saying we’re only intolerant of those who are intolerant, but it’s really an intolerance of an approach to life we don’t understand, that doesn’t have our appreciation for novelty.


    Posted by jswagner | August 21, 2016, 10:08 am
    • Thank you for these excellent thoughts. They illustrate, I think, that much of the knowledge about human nature that’s taken for granted as ground truth takes an approach that’s so broad-brush that it borders on being just plain wrong.

      A more refined understanding like the one you describe would help the world to avoid much of the partisan rancor it currently sees.


      Posted by The Independent Whig | August 21, 2016, 10:26 am


  1. Pingback: What Heterodox Academy Gets Wrong | The Independent Whig - September 13, 2017

  2. Pingback: The Discussion of “Openness” is a Doorway to Ideas that are Even More Important and Far Reaching | The Independent Whig - August 21, 2016

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