Could Adversity Increase Open-Mindedness?


According to anecdotal reports and past research, many people perceive that going through significant hardship changed their outlook on life by opening their minds up to new possibilities for their lives. Whether they started new initiatives or activities, changed jobs, or became more receptive to new perspectives, people report feeling compelled to question long-held assumptions and to pursue newer, richer, and more meaningful directions in life. However, the popular narrative that going through significant hardship can lead to unexpected benefits has also been decried as a form of “tyranny of positive thinking.” When writer Barbara Ehrenreich’s suffered from breast cancer, she deeply resented the pressure to “look on the bright side” and find opportunities for personal growth in what she only experienced as a devastating illness.

Little rigorous research to date has confirmed that people in fact do become more open-minded and receptive to new ideas and opportunities following major adversity. And there is an alternative explanation for this commonly held belief – people could involuntarily distort their perceptions to help themselves cope with difficulties, leading them to overestimate the positive effects of what they went through. We are conducting a longitudinal study to answer this question. Our research team is recruiting individuals who have recently experienced major stressors (of any kind) as well as individuals who have not (to serve as a control group). Because outcomes may vary widely depending on participants’ pre-existing vulnerability and resilience to stress, we are also taking care to recruit an equal number of participants with and without a vulnerability to stress-related psychological disorders.

The key distinctive feature of our project (compared to previous studies in this area) is that we are assessing changes in open-mindedness longitudinally rather than retrospectively. Every 4 months during the course of one year, all participants complete a battery of measures. The majority of measures assess open-minded thinking and behaviors. Participants also complete additional assessments of well-being as well as character strengths thought to be meaningfully related to open-mindedness (e.g., empathy, compassion). Because we are interested in how open-mindedness may manifest in everyday life contexts, we are also asking participants to answer questions during their daily lives (e.g., at home, at work, during leisure activities) using their smartphones. Importantly, this will allow us to assess in real time how participants who have (and have not) recently experienced a major stressor react to daily life stressors.

Our hypothesis is that some, but not all participants who have recently experienced a major stressor will become more open-minded. We are especially interested in understanding which factors may predispose people to grow following adversity. We predict that individuals who are already at least somewhat open-minded and resilient to stress to begin with will be more likely to experience positive changes. Once disseminated, the findings of our research can ensure that public perceptions of the effects of adversity on open-mindedness are portrayed accurately. It is our hope that results will provide a nuanced picture of the effects of adversity on open-mindedness that may counteract “one-size-fits-all” narratives. In particular, we are especially eager to uncover not just whether most people become more open-minded following adversity, but under which circumstances, for which people, and through which mechanisms, positive changes may occur. In doing so, our results may in the long run help shape cultural narratives surrounding adversity, and inform strategies to help people effectively cope in the aftermath of adversity using sensitive expectations and appropriate resources and/or interventions.