Better open than intellectual

Openness to experience trumps intellectual curiosity for learning

Personality is incredibly important for learning – not just in formal situations, such as university, but also when doing something as mundane as going to the supermarket

People who are open to new experiences are better at learning than those who are intellectually curious reveals new research from Dr Sophie von Stumm of the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science (PBS).

The research, published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin today (Tuesday 12 December), compared how different personality learning traits affected how people absorbed knowledge in laboratory experiments.

Individuals who are ‘open to experience’ are defined as those who love being ‘in the moment’ and learning from situations which are not necessarily associated with achievement. In contrast, people who are ‘intellectually curious’ have a love for academic knowledge, intellectual pursuits and abstract ideas. 

Participants answered questionnaires to determine their own approach to learning and then undertook one of four tasks that differed in complexity. Overall 649 adults took part in the research.

In one of the experiments, participants were given the opportunity to look at a website about a National Park in Croatia, and were later tested on the information without being forewarned.

In a different, more challenging task, participants were told they were going to be tested on some scholarly texts on economics, history and science, and that there would be a prize for the highest score. They were also given the chance to revise for the test.

The research found that people who were open to experience absorbed information better in each of the four tasks, including the most complex or ‘academic’ one. Differences in participants’ cognitive abilities were taken into account.

Dr Sophie von Stumm, Associate Professor in LSE’s Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science and author of the research, said: 

“Personality is incredibly important for learning – not just in formal situations, such as university, but also when doing something as mundane as going to the supermarket.

“Interestingly, people that we might think of as being as being more ‘intellectual’ did less well in absorbing information in our tests. It’s not clear why this is – maybe, by narrowing the mind to focus on specific facts or solutions, an individual can miss the bigger picture, as well as the smaller details.

“People’s personalities can’t be changed much but teachers can encourage learners to be ‘in the moment’, for example by using novelty and open, independent exploration as part of their teaching.”

This is one of the first studies to show that people who are ‘being open to experience’ learn better even in the more complex tasks, where it might be expected that cognitive ability would be more important than personality.

von Stumn, Sophie (2017) Better open than intellectual: The benefits of investment personality traits for learning. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. ISSN 01461672 (In Press). View on LSE Research Online.