Openness is influenced by cognitive abilities: Self-efficacy too?

January 30, 2012 at 9:20 am 3 comments

Interesting finding that supporting older adults learning better problem-solving skills seems to lead to a change in a personality trait called “openness.”  I find this interesting for two reasons.  First, it’s wonderful to see continuing evidence about the plasticity of the human mind.  Surprisingly little is “fixed” or “innate.”  Second, I wonder how “openness” relates to “self-efficacy.”  We heard at ICER 2011 how self-efficacy plays a significant role in student ability to succeed in introductory computing.  Is there an implication here that if we could improve students’ understanding of computer science, before programming, that we could enhance their openness or self-efficacy, possibly leading to more success?  That’s a related hypothesis to what we aim for in CSLearning4U (that studying programming in the small, worksheet-style, will make programming sessions more effective — more learning, less time, less pain), and I’d love to see more evidence for this.

Personality psychologists describe openness as one of five major personality traits. Studies suggest that the other four traits (agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and extraversion) operate independently of a person’s cognitive abilities. But openness — being flexible and creative, embracing new ideas and taking on challenging intellectual or cultural pursuits — does appear to be correlated with cognitive abilities.

via Enhancing cognition in older adults also changes personality.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alan Kay  |  January 30, 2012 at 10:25 am

    Mark said->First, it’s wonderful to see continuing evidence about the plasticity of the human mind. Surprisingly little is “fixed” or “innate.”

    Actually quite a bit is fixed and innate. It’s much more the ranges of the parameters that is flexible, not so much the parameters themselves. (These are the “human universals” found without exception in traditional societies. E.g “language” is universal, but thousands of languages have developed to “fill” this parameter. Reading and writing is not universal, it was an invention rather than a “built-in”.)

    If we take the psychologists mentioned in the article at face value (sometimes a tricky proposition), we find that they posit -five- major personality traits to all humans. These are the parameters, and the article is about a claim that the particular “values” of one of these can be changed by a certain kind of training.

    Choosing categories for complex systems is also tricky, but the “human universal” idea has been one of the most useful and carefully done results of classical Anthropology.

    On the other hand, “personality traits” are quite a soft area to slice and dice, and there are many other alternative multidimensional proposals that compete with this 5D one.



    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  January 30, 2012 at 8:43 pm

      Hi Alan,

      If you could change the human universals, would you still have a human? Are they built into our hardware or our software? If the former, it seems that they would be hard to change without physical intervention. If the latter, how do we know that they’re not malleable? Taking whatever set of traits or human-universals you choose that serve as a covering set, what would be an example of a parameter (a trait or universal) that humans can’t develop, but could be added (in some way) and the result would still be seen as human?

      I do mean, as you say, that we have a great ability to vary the range within the parameters. Studies like the one cited point out that we can change our values in those ranges even into our advanced years, which I consider quite encouraging. I know that there are quite a few parameters that I would like to see myself improve within, and I’m happy to hear that I may still have the time to do it.


      • 3. Alan Kay  |  January 30, 2012 at 11:46 pm

        Hi Mark

        Traits such as having language, stories, culture, interest in kinship, religion, magic, revenge, and many more, etc., are thought to be “built-ins” (hardware). The details are filled in from what the local culture has come up with.

        This strategy of being born with low-resolution “types of interests and proclivities” that are then filled in via high-resolution experience in the world, is found in most higher animals. It makes a lot of sense given that we don’t have a lot of genetic material and it is hard for this material to “learn”. The “face learning from birth” work by TGR Bower in the 60s is a classic example.

        One of the most interesting built-ins is revenge. Another is that no traditional culture has ever been found with the idea of equal rights for all.

        Once we have the idea of “universals” we can look to see how some of the “non-universals” were invented, and what it takes to learn them. So writing and reading, deductive math, model based science, equal rights, etc.

        The inventions seem rare, and they seem to be harder to learn than the built-ins.

        For example, as Jerry Bruner points out, the basic of the Law was a set of inventions to try to avert revenge and especially vendetta. Not trying to take revenge in one way or another is a very hard idea to learn for most people, even in cultures that have had carefully built structures to deal with it.

        Equal rights is another idea that is very difficult to learn, etc.

        But to me, this is what real education is all about — it’s main goal is to help children learn the inventions that are stronger than our built in proclivities fluently enough to modulate behavior even under stress.

        A simple version of the big question is “How well can human beings choose what they need over what they want when this is a good idea?”

        H.G. Wells said 100 years ago that “History is in a race between catastrophe and education”. This is what he meant.




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