Monday, March 29, 2010

Personality, the Big Five

I seem to be on a personality kick these days... I just came across an article in Scientific American Mind on how we become less open to new experiences as we age. People who are generally more open as children remain so as they age, but on the whole, by the time we reach 30, we have become rather set in our ways.

Psychologists use a variety of measures for personality. The Myers-Briggs test I discussed in a recent post is probably one of the best-known, but another is the Big Five Personality Test, which measures five traits (taken from Set In Our Ways by Nikolas Westerhoff, Scientific American Mind Dec 2008/Jan 2009):
  • Openness: People with high scores here love novelty and are generally creative. At the other end of the scale are those who are more conventional in their thinking, prefer routines, and have a pronounced sense of right and wrong
  • Extroversion: Those who score high for extroversion are companionable, sociable and able to accomplish what they set out to do. Those with low scores tend to be introverted, reserved and more submissive to authority.
  • Agreeableness: This trait describes how we deal with others. High values show that someone is friendly, empathetic and warm. Shy, suspicious and egocentric individuals score low on the spectrum.
  • Neuroticism: This scale measure emotional stability. People with high scores are anxious, inhibited, moody and less self-assured. Those at the lower end of are calm, confident, and contented.
  • Conscientiousness: This dimension measures a person's degree of organization. Those with high scores are motivated, disciplined and trustworthy. Irresponsible and easily distracted people are found at the low end of the scale.
I encourage you to take it, too. I find it helpful to have some idea of why I do the things I do.

What does this have to do with creativity? Open people tend to be more creative, as well as being open to novel experiences (although I must say that the two go hand-in-hand: I have found that novel experiences help spark new ideas).

Interestingly, there are particular times in people's lives when they tend to be more open: before the age of 30, and again after they turn 60. Perhaps this is at the root of the observation that all great scientific discoveries are made before the age of 30. Those are the times when people are better able to look at things from a new angle, to see things in a different light.

Even if you fall in the 30-60 age range, you can consciously take steps to become more open and creative. Expose yourself to new things: take a different route to work, order something different when you go out to eat (try out a completely new restaurant), make small changes to increase your exposure to new and different things.

Just don't get fixated on unrealistic or unattainable goals. As Westerhoff points out, "...remember that your openness to new experiences is slowly declining, so you are better off making a new start today than postponing it until later. Perhaps most important of all, try to appreciate the person that you already are."

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