No Reservations & Psychology

by Ted Cascio

“Do we really want to travel in hermetically sealed popemobiles through the rural provinces of France, Mexico and the Far East, eating only in Hard Rock Cafes and McDonalds? Or do we want to eat without fear, tearing into the local stew, the humble taqueria’s mystery meat, the sincerely offered gift of a lightly grilled fish head? I know what I want. I want it all. I want to try everything once.”
– Anthony Bourdain

In case you’re unacquainted, let me introduce you to Anthony Bourdain, of Travel Channel’s No Reservations fame. He’s a really interesting guy who’s perhaps at his best when offering up reflections like this, though also, come to think of it, in his darker moments when, for instance, he’s eating an unwashed warthog rectum, stumbling around wasted from overconsumption of the local brew, and spitting vitriolic aspersions in all directions, at the same time. (Any rival chef, most notably Alice Waters – or “Pol Pot in a muumuu” according to Anthony – will want to wash the pieces of warthog rectum out of her hair immediately. Little cooking tip.) Rough around the edges Anthony may be, but there’s no denying his truly exceptional wit and electrifying charisma. He’s a bold provocateur moonlighting as a bombastic black-market philosopher…of food…and life.

And indeed he appears to have much to teach us. His books are best-sellers for a reason. They each not surprisingly have their culinary side, but they also expose us to Anthony’s exhilarating mental and emotional universe. Many wish they could be as brave, open-minded, and free-spirited as him. His TV show No Reservations represents a vision of what life could be like for us if only we were a little more willing to pursue the types of new, unfamiliar experiences to which he so fearlessly exposes himself.

Impetuosity like Anthony’s can be facilitated by many factors, both external and internal. If Wikipedia is to be believed, copious quantities of chemical assistance (e.g., heroine) have assisted him in the past. And we all see how much liquid courage he imbibes on camera. These are some of the external factors. But in addition to these we can also safely assume that Anthony is much more internally predisposed to seek new sensations than is the average person. This internal factor is stable and consistently in evidence, even when the drugs and alcohol have presumably lost their effect.

The psychological concept that best captures this side of Anthony’s personality is called openness to experience. Its structure, origin, and correlates have been extensively studied. Here’s a tiny little primer on this immensely important variable.

Openness to experience is one of the “Big Five” personality factors, which means that it’s one of five fundamental aspects of human personality. Most people are about average on this dimension, but some people, like Anthony, are quite high, while others are low and considered closed to experience. These are the conventional folks who prefer routine and tend to dislike modern art. They regard as aversive most things that are new or unfamiliar to them. Fairly consistent with stereotypes, the highest openness scores are found in New York, Oregon, Massachusetts, Washington, and California; the lowest in North Dakota, Wyoming, Alaska, Alabama, and Wisconsin (Rentfrow, Gosling, & Potter, 2008).

It has six facets which I’ll now list (and along which we’ll judge Anthony). 1. Fantasy – having a vivid imagination (check), 2. Aesthetics – appreciating art (check), 3. Feelings – having poignant emotional experiences (not sure), 4. Actions – pursuing new activities, places, and foods (double check), 5. Ideas – openness to new ideas (double check), and 6. Values – inclination to re-examine traditional values (double check). Based on this analysis, Anthony would probably score really high on openness. You can rate your friends in a slightly different manner. When you’re at one of their houses, look around and take note of a few things. If the d├ęcor is unconventional, you see books on a variety of topics, an eclectic music collection, and artwork displayed, your friend is likely to be high in openness (Gosling, 2008).

We can also look at openness in terms of its correlates. With what is openness associated? Some pretty good stuff, it turns out. It correlates positively with creativity, and some studies find the same link for certain forms of intelligence, like crystallized intelligence, and general intelligence. It’s also associated with lower ethnocentrism and right-wing authoritarianism. Hence, as you might expect, liberals generally score higher on openness than conservatives. Another shocker: openness is positively correlated with drug use, especially Assassin of Youth (a.k.a.,marijuana). (Yet another way in which Anthony embodies the openness archetype.)

Which begs the question: should we follow the example set by Anthony Bourdain, the enemy of conservative close-mindedness and religious for bearance, and the friend of all that is new, exciting, and stimulating? Given his checkered history with drugs and his somewhat vulgar disposition, should we regard him as a role model and be willing to, like him, “try anything once”?

As much as I might like to, I’m not going to attempt an answer here. “It depends” is probably the best anyone can do. However, if you’re certain that for you the answer is “yes,” and you’re wondering whether it’s possible to increase your level of openness, then the news for you is pretty good. Like most things, openness has a genetic component, but it also seems to be partly constructed, something we can change about ourselves if we really try. If you want to become less inhibited and narrow-minded, more like Anthony, the key is the situation. Put yourself in situations which facilitate openness. Try to meet and befriend other open people. Read books and watch TV shows like No Reservations that depict openness in positive ways. In no time at all, you’ll have tasted every type of unwashed rectum there is. And that, friend, is my sincerest and most fervent hope.

Ted Cascio is co-editor of “House & Psychology” (Wiley, available Spring 2011).

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Will Savage

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