What happened to the penniless philosopher — openness to experience and why it doesn’t predict high income

The Big 5 personality traits are formulated in a way that one is easily led to believe that being high on any one of those traits (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, emotional stability) is a good thing. One personality trait that is certainly helpful in life is conscientiousness as it predicts both favourable financial and academic outcomes. Paradoxically the most intelligent among us often have low conscientiousness.

A recent study published in found that scientists are much more open but less agreeable than people in other professions. On the plus side, they’re more likely to be intellectually curious, idealistic, and passionate than non-scientists. 890… The analysis revealed that scientists combine low agreeableness and low conscientiousness with high openness

In brief, scientists’ personality profiles conform to the stereotype of the unpopular nerd, whereas the athletic and popular jocks tend to have the inverse profile: low openness, high conscientiousness and agreeableness. By the way, the same is also true for their extraversion profile.

One common finding is that openness predicts a progressive/liberal attitude whereas conscientiousness predicts a conservative attitude. The latter work hard to preserve the status quo, the former work hard to change the world.

Openness is therefore IMHO the most interesting personality trait as it predicts potential innovators. We can safely assume that the vast majority of innovators were high in openness. What’s more, not only did they have to work hard to come up with their innovations, they also often had to work hard to convince the masses of conservatives that the innovation was useful.

There are, however, some flaws with the concept of openness. First of all, it’s not a human universal and it’s the first trait dimension to disappear in non Western cultures. Second, it’s not really an independent trait but correlates at least partially with extraversion (positively) and conscientiousness (negatively). Thirdly, it doesn’t really seem to be a continuous dimension. The subcomponents of openness to ideas and openness to thrill seeking are often diametrically opposed in people (nerds vs jocks). My openness score is .9, but I have always been extremely averse to thrill seeking, and so have probably many others high in openness: Immanuel Kant was said to have never left his native town of Könisgberg and it’s hard to picture scientists like Einstein as thrill-seekers.

In my evolutionary model of personality traits our ancestral modes of subsistence with their different life-history strategies would account for these problems (Myers-Briggs temperaments in parentheses):

This picture conforms well with what we know about pastoralist and farmer societies, but much less so with what we usually think of foragers. Hunter-gatherers don’t seem to be the most innovative type of people to us. And it’s true, but mostly because there was never much need for them as long they were allowed to live their sustainable way of life. In Affluence Without Abundance (2017) James Suzman writes:

Farmers conceded that Bushmen had some desirable qualities that compensated for their shortcomings. They often remarked how Bush men were “ technically gifted and how many demonstrated “an almost supernatural affinity for mechanics .” They also described them as “ inventive ,” “ imaginative ,” and “intelligent And, despite everything, many farmers also described the Bushmen as “loyal” and “likable.” But perhaps the quality that farmers liked the most was that they could get away with paying Bushmen little or nothing for their labor. (my emphasis).

Openness to experience may actually be a survival strategy for hunter-gatherer types in a farmer-herder society. Suzman writes who the Bushmen in Namibia inevitably end up as third class people due to their evolutionary programming. They aren’t programmed for rote work nor are they programmed to acquire material wealth. However, they are programmed to be egalitarian and they understand well that in a society that defines social class by wealth and work, they will never be considered equal and always looked down upon. If your evolutionary programming doesn’t conform to the status-seeking and competitive nature of farmers and herders, you better find yourself a niche where you can survive and ideally also thrive.

To end this post, it’s probably unnecessary to state the Nature study found that scientists are more idealistic and less materialistic. They earn comparatively little compared to equally qualified managers … or athletes. Not very surprising as we live in a farmer-herder world.

Unless you can make big bucks for big companies with your creativity, most jobs involving high openness are pretty poorly paid:

  • Artist
  • Travel Writer
  • Publicist
  • Graphic Designer
  • Philosopher

The penniless philosopher is more than just a stereotype. People high in openness are idealists and companies are aware of that, so they can afford to pay low salaries. One of the best jobs you can get when you are high in openness and low in agreeableness and conscientiousness: video-game designer. Another frequent occupation for people with such a combination of traits: hobo.

Originally published at http://the-big-ger-picture.blogspot.com on April 25, 2021.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store