Can You Be Too Open-Minded?

I have said in the past that Openness is the only one of the Big Five personality traits which cannot be excessive. It is always a good idea to increase one’s own Openness; for all other traits, only some people would be well served for increasing it.1 The precise ideal point for any such trait might be different from trait to trait; higher-than-average Agreeableness is probably a good thing, while Extraversion may have a broad range in the middle within which no individual position is better or worse than another. For Openness, that ideal point is at the extreme high end. In other words, if open-mindedness is a virtue, it is not a virtue which is the median of two extremes, as Aristotle said all virtues would be; it is still a virtue if it is taken to the extreme.

This is what I said, and this is still largely what I believe, but of course there are people who disagree and I thought I might take some time to consider some possible objections; furthermore, this is not the whole story. There are cases where open-mindedness can be corrupted, but I think I can explain how such a thing would not happen as a result from an excess of open-mindedness but rather from a deficit of some other virtue.

The place to begin is with the phrase, commonly misattributed to G K Chesterton, that you should not keep your mind so open that your brain falls out. (Some short Internet research suggests that this quote should be attributed to Walter Kotschnig in 1940.) A possible reason for this misattribution is that Chesterton did say something similar:

For my friend said that he opened his intellect as the sun opens the fans of a palm tree, opening for opening’s sake, opening infinitely for ever. But I said that I opened my intellect as I opened my mouth, in order to shut it again on something solid.

Finally there is another phrase which you might hear sometimes if you advocate for, or are assumed to advocating for, open-mindedness: If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything. (Its original attribution was much more specific, incidentally.) This is something I’ve been told from time to time in comboxes.

Between these phrases, I think I can identify two concerns about open-mindedness:

    1. Being too open-minded will condemn a person to being eternally unmoored;
    2. Being too open-minded will make a person vulnerable to bad ideas and poor reasoning.

 

I will tackle these in reverse order because the second has already been well-addressed by Carl Sagan.

Objection: Falling for Anything

Open-mindedness is not gullibility. Open-mindedness is the willingness to take new ideas seriously, to assume that a new idea might be true; the corollary is that a currently-held idea might then be false. This says nothing about how likely a person will actually come to believe those new ideas. It is only a question of whether, and to what extent, a person might consider them in the first place.

When people have told me that someone who stands for nothing falls for anything, usually they seem to be warning me that my willingness to seriously consider objections to orthodoxy–for this usually happened when I argued online with Roman Catholics–would leave me vulnerable to heresies or falsehoods. However, that hasn’t generally been the case; the rare sort of enthusiasms of which I’ve been guilty are usually for narrow, domain-specific ideas which I wind up moderating or refining but not rejecting, and even then it happens at most every five years or so. I am not a credulous person, though I am an unusually open-minded one.2 So what’s going on here?

What I think is happening is that these interlocutors are conflating open-mindedness with gullibility and while gullibility requires open-mindedness to function, it also requires a lack of skepticism. I have skepticism in abundance.

In his 1987 article “The Burden of Skepticism,” Carl Sagan writes on this issue so well that I will simply block-quote him:

It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. Obviously those two modes of thought are in some tension. But if you are able to exercise only one of these modes, whichever one it is, you’re in deep trouble.

If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything new. You become a crotchety old person convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.) But every now and then, maybe once in a hundred cases, a new idea turns out to be on the mark, valid and wonderful. If you are too much in the habit of being skeptical about everything, you are going to miss or resent it, and either way you will be standing in the way of understanding and progress.

On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful as from the worthless ones. If all ideas have equal validity then you are lost, because then, it seems to me, no ideas have any validity at all.

In summary, open-mindedness without skepticism leads to gullibility while skepticism without open-mindedness leads to intellectual conservatism. Both states are prone to factual and interpretive errors. The only disagreements I have with Sagan are that a) I do not think open-mindedness and skepticism are in tension whatsoever and b) I disagree with the phrasing “if you are open to the point of gullibility” because it suggests gullibility results from some excess of open-mindedness rather than from a deficit of skepticism. I’ll sketch these out briefly.

Open-mindedness and skepticism are not conflicting needs because open-mindedness concerns the willingness to believe an idea might be true and therefore examining whether it might be, while skepticism concerns the willingness to believe an idea might be false and therefore examining whether it might be. Since a person can at the same time take seriously that possibility that an idea might be true and take seriously the possibility that it might be false, and since determining whether an idea is true is the same as determining whether it is false, there is no conflict between the two. There might be a conflict between open-mindedness and skepticism as broad stereotypes–between the rationalist who crashes ghost hunter conferences to ridicule the attendants and the attendants who the rationalist ridicules–that is clearly not what Sagan is talking about here. There is also a conflict between broad associations we might have with either (those who believe that all religions are true, say, and those who believe that none are) but, again, this is not really what we’re talking about. We are talking about open-mindedness, not imprecision, and we’re talking about skepticism, not entrenched rational materialism.

If these two traits are not in conflict, then an increase in one does not mean a decrease in the other; one can be very open-minded and very skeptical. And this means that if gullibility is about a lack of skepticism (“not an ounce of skeptical sense”), then it does not necessarily have anything to do with excess of open-mindedness (“open to the point of gullibility”), because the degree to which you show one trait is not correlated with the degree to which you show the other.

Rather than a spectrum with two extremes (gullible, crotchety) and a happy median (both open-minded and skeptical), we have a circumplex model with open-mindedness on one axis and skepticism on the other. This means we could be low on the open-mindedness scale and high on the skepticism scale (what Sagan calls “crotchety”), or high on the open-mindedness scale and low on the skepticism scale (gullible), or high on both scales (Sagan’s ideal and mine), or low on both (a possibility which Sagan doesn’t discuss, but which I observe in people credulous about the beliefs they grew up with and blandly incurious about any other ideas, which I think is a kind of complacency).

circumplex model of openmindedness and skepticism

It would look sort of like this. My apologies for the shoddy graphsmanship.

I wonder sometimes if it is a bad thing for one trait to outrun the other. If you increase in open-mindedness without increasing in skepticism, is that worse than staying at the same level in both? Certainly it could lead to gullibility, but the question is not whether gullibility is bad but whether it is worse than that intellectual complacency I mentioned. I don’t think it is, in that you aren’t going to get any closer to the truth or to some more felicitous life either way, and therefore I don’t think it’s ever bad to increase in open-mindedness. I’m not sure I can demonstrate that claim; however, even if gullibility is worse than complacency, Sagan’s ideal is better than either, and so the best thing of all would be to increase both open-mindedness and skepticism indefinitely.

Objection: Being Unmoored

One of my many complaints about G K Chesterton is his habit of profound-sounding turns of phrase that are either so imprecise as to be useless or so sloppy in metaphor as to be misleading. The “something solid” in the quote above is nearly so imprecise as to be useless, or at least it is when taken out of context, as I have usually encountered it. But I think there is something that he, and people who quote him, are getting at.

Several years ago I got into a debate with Eve Tushnet over her claim that universities taught too much critical thinking.3 A lot of my original response was misdirected but I still disagree with her on that very narrow point: the problem is absolutely not a surplus of critical thinking, of which we still have too little. But she did have a point that I need to take seriously, and that is not so much that universities do not teach people to choose a worldview and live as though it were true (I’m not convinced that it is the university’s role to do any such thing, at least not at an undergraduate level), but rather that people do actually need to make such a choice and must figure out how to do it somehow. You can go on doubting forever, and that is fine, but in the meantime you must figure out what is the best answer so far and work with that. Neither open-mindedness nor skepticism are much use in the positive aspects of selecting and living with the best answer so far.

There are at least two ways of thinking about this point. First, perpetual questing is a recipe for existential crisis, something I know intimately. As a consequence of the sort of beings we are, we need to act as though something is true. Practically, we have to make decisions and so we have to have some framework with which to make them; psychologically, constant existential crisis is exhausting. Second, we could be Kuhnians about this. There are two modes of science: revolutionary science, in which paradigms are overthrown, and normal science, in which paradigms are elaborated and refined. When people first learn about revolutionary science, it can often feel as though normal science is useless because the paradigm on which it is based will eventually be replaced. Normal science, however, isn’t useless at all, not least because it determines much about how the next revolution will go; it is precisely normal science’s habit of turning up contradictions which kicks off and directs the next revolution. So, to be Kuhnians about this, we need to do some normal science too, even past the point where a paradigm shift appears to be inevitable.

So what trait or virtue allows us to do normal science? Commitment is the first word to come to mind but I do not think it is the best one; it is discrete action rather than a trait and it can go awry when, for example, a person remains committed to something when it is proven to be harmful (thanks to skepticism) and when other options present themselves (thanks to open-mindedness). Conscientiousness is another possibility, borrowed from the HEXACO and OCEAN theories of personality, and it is a little better. It is a trait, at least, and it contains everything there is to like about commitment. Alas, it can also be a vice as much as it can be a virtue, and it also entails concepts like promptness and neatness, so it’s not what I’m looking for. Satisficing is in many ways much better–it conveys that sense that this isn’t the best thing, but it’ll do, and it doesn’t typically become stubbornness–but it also is not a trait and it is over-specific. I’m not sure that there is a vernacular word that precisely describes what I want to describe, but I think the best I have seen is constancy, which I am taking from Alasdair MacIntyre’s analysis of Jane Austen in After Virtue. Austen’s novel Persuasion in particular attempts to tackle the problem of being committed to a course of action, to an affection, or to a vision of one’s life without being foolishly stubborn about it. In Persuasion, a person must be open to wise persuasion but uninfluenced by unwise persuasion, and the sort of commitment which can be influenced when it should be influenced is what I am trying to get at. I’m not sure that constancy is quite right, but it’s the best I’ve seen so far. If you have a better name for it, please let me know.

Constancy, then, would be a third axis along with open-mindedness and skepticism. A person high in open-mindedness and skepticism, but lacking in constancy, would have predictable troubles: aimlessness, difficulty with decisions (whether paralysis when faced with them or wild inconsistency when making them), and an anxiety or depression caused by an acute sense of absurdity. An adequate degree of constancy would allow a person to commit to some vision of life as long as it held up to that person’s high skepticism, despite that person’s awareness of other options that comes with open-mindedness. High constancy does not necessarily become stubbornness; even moderate constancy becomes stubbornness if skepticism and open-mindedness are too low.

Immoderate Virtues?

My hypothesis is that virtues often described as medians between extremes are better described as one quarter of a circumplex model (or something similar but with more axes). My guess is that the problem is not with an excess of some trait, but a deficit of some other balancing trait. This is nothing more than wild speculation and you should not take it as anything more than that, but I have thoughts on some virtues that might work best in pairs.

One is reverence and mirth; these particular names come from Wicca’s Eight Virtues, but the general experience of them balanced and ill-balanced is something I suspect many people could attest whether Wiccan or not. Neither gravity (what I would call reverence without mirth) nor levity (what I would call mirth without reverence) is ideal; both are likely better than apathy (or whatever you would call the presence of neither). It would be best to have both reverence and mirth in abundance.

Another far more classical pair is courage and prudence. To call courage the median between cowardice and rashness has always seemed as silly to me as suggesting that one could be too prudent. Rashness is not an excess of courage; it is what happens when courage is not accompanied by prudence. The problem is not in the courage.

Justice and mercy also comes to mind. One can be both unjust and unmerciful, one can be just and unmerciful, and one can be unjust and merciful; that suggests to me, then, that it is a circumplex model, not a single spectrum. I am not William Blake and in my view justice and mercy are neither contraries nor negations of one another.4 If it appears that they are, then one or the other is misunderstood. Of course, it might be prove impossible for we mortals to be perfectly just and perfectly merciful at once, but it would prove impossible for us to be perfectly just on its own, too.

I could be wrong about this, of course; it is nothing more than wild speculation or, perhaps, just a language game. Maybe the distinction between the happy medium and the circumplex model is simply one of framing. But at any rate, it seems untrue to me that I could be too open-minded; if it seems that I am too open-minded, it would instead be the case that I am either not skeptical enough or not constant enough. That might be another way of saying that Openness is the only one of the Big Five personality traits which is, properly speaking, a virtue. (Neuroticism, of course, might be its only vice, but I’m not sure; is it better to be very low in Neuroticism or only somewhat low? A person with too low a score in that trait would seem cold to me, unmoved by injustice or cruelty, but I don’t know.)


  1. I am assuming that you, in general, want to encourage the flourishing of the people around you without significantly threatening your own. If that is not your goal, then nothing that I say necessarily follows.
  2. Source: a comment made by that friend who I call Voltaire Panda here, and taking OCEAN and HEXACO tests online, and general self-knowledge, which of course you are free to disbelieve. I am unusually open-minded, but I also know that many people who are not especially open-minded believe themselves to be so, and therefore my self-report probably should mean nothing to you.
  3. I do not think you would benefit much from revisiting that argument, but for the sake citational thoroughness her original post is here, my first response is here, her reply is here, Leah Libresco’s interjection is here, my immediate follow-up is here, and my years-later revisit of the subject is here. Again, I see no reason for you to read any of that, at least as this post goes. I bring this all up at all because I want to properly credit Tushnet for bringing the problem to my attention.
  4. Blake did not consider justice and mercy to be negations. However, to deny that they are contraries in Blake’s terms might imply they are negations and that is just as false, if not more so.
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2 thoughts on “Can You Be Too Open-Minded?

  1. I have never come across a more accurate description of my psychological and philosophical state than this paragraph in your blog:
    “A person high in open-mindedness and skepticism, but lacking in constancy, would have predictable troubles: aimlessness, difficulty with decisions (whether paralysis when faced with them or wild inconsistency when making them), and an anxiety or depression caused by an acute sense of absurdity”

    I guess it’s time to learn constancy.

    Like

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