My Favorite Things: Swimming in My Own OCEAN

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Do you remember the first time you heard about sushi?

If you’re of Asian descent, that’s a silly question; you’ve probably known about sushi all of your life.

Not so for we Westerners…Americans in particular in my case.

For us, the idea of eating raw fish was…well…that’s what this story is about.

Let’s back up for a minute.

Last time, we took a look at how our preferences for tidiness are reflections of more generalized personality traits. The most widely recognized system for evaluating and understanding personality traits is the Big Five Model. Big Five depicts ranges of ways that we vary from one another on five traits, using the acronym, OCEAN:

Openness to experience (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious)

Conscientiousness (efficient/organized vs. extravagant/careless)

Extraversion (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved)

Agreeableness (friendly/compassionate vs. critical/rational)

Neuroticism (sensitive/nervous vs. resilient/confident)

Using the Big Five, our preferences for tidiness is a reflection of our degree of Conscientiousness. The more Conscientious we are (C + + being the highest level in Big Five language) the neater we like our surroundings to be. The less organized among us (C — — in Big Five scoring). Very concerned with tidiness would be C + +, a little less C +, not all that focused on it, C 0, a bit messy C —, always looking for where we put things, C — —. We all vary from C + + to C — —. Even without taking the actual test, most of us have a sense of where we might fall on that scale.

But, let’s go back to looking at the Big Five from the start of the OCEAN acronym: to O for Openness.

Asking someone how “open-minded” they are is kind of a set-up. Who says that they’re “closed-minded”? When asked directly, most of us will likely give some variation on culturally-acceptable responses like, “broad-minded,” or “accepting.” But, to explore our own (or other people’s) Openness a little further, it helps to think about more concrete ways that the trait expresses itself.

Take food, for example. I started with the sushi question because it often reveals a quick starting point for learning about an individual’s Openness to Experience. As the Big Five model hints, personality traits are most productively thought of as a system of interacting characteristics that come together to (roughly) describe a unique individual. So, Openness is one element of a more general approach to life.

People who have never eaten sushi, but who think of themselves (predominantly unconsciously, i.e., without “thinking” of ourselves!) as “modern,” “urbane,” “cosmopolitan,” or “hip,” are likely to be open to considering the prospect of trying sushi. After all, trying new things is almost a requirement for being considered a “modern” person. By contrast, people who immediately react with some expression of apprehension (if not outright disgust) are giving us a clue that they are probably somewhere toward the O — or O — — end of the scale.

Notice that most of us don’t actually have to “think”about an answer about our degree of enthusiasm for trying sushi (or Ethiopian, Filipino, or Moroccan cuisine.) That’s because our Elephant (that powerful part of our cognitive machinery that automatically manages most of our everyday experience) already knows the answer: “I am (or am not) the kind of person who wants to try unfamiliar things!”

Of course, Openness to Experience doesn’t end with food. When’s the last time you (voluntarily!) listened to new music? How about the last time you read a book written by someone you know you disagree with? Or, bought an item of clothing from a new brand? These are all clues about the degree to which we are open to new experiences.

Over the course of our lives we gradually develop preferences…favorites…that solidify into patterns…styles…even ruts! It’s our appetite for new experiences that we see reflected in our Elephants’ reactions to the prospect of something different. And, in a world constantly presenting “the next new thing” it’s hard not to be at least little judgmental of people who tend towards O — or O — —: “outdated,” “close-minded,” “prejudiced” are increasingly harsh ways that we characterize them.

What we forget is how deeply those characterizations are rooted in our own preferences. My Elephant judges your Elephant’s choices based on its own (unconscious) ways of living in the modern world. That frame-of-reference is all we have unless we consciously decide to question where our judgments come from.

And, that’s what I mean when I say: each of us lives with an Elephant that “swims” in its own OCEAN. Getting to know what our Elephant is like is a key to understanding ourselves and other people.

Next time, it’s fun with Introverts and Extraverts!

Tom Guarriello is a psychologist, consultant, and founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He’s spent over a decade teaching psychology-based courses like The Meaning of Branded Objects, as well as leading Honors and Thesis projects. He’s spearheaded two podcasts, BrandBox and RoboPsych, the accompanying podcast for his eponymous website on the psychology of human-robot interaction. This essay was originally posted on Guarriello’s Substack, My Favorite Things.

Banner: Maryam Sicaro on Unsplash+

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