By Emma Young
Though COVID-19 is front and centre right now, most people would agree that climate change is the biggest threat facing humanity. As we explored earlier this year, how to engage people to combat that change is a thornier subject. Now a major new meta-analysis, published in Psychological Science, has revealed that particular personality traits are associated with more — or fewer — pro-environmental attitudes and behaviours.
The work has potentially important practical implications. Reframing pro-environmental campaigns to resonate with people who would otherwise be more resistant to them could effect real change. As the researchers write, “personality factors may play a significant and systematic role in such reframing.”
Alistair Raymond Bryce Soutter at the University of Edinburgh and colleagues analysed the data from 38 papers, comprising 44,993 participants from 19 countries across four continents. All of these papers used either a Big Five (extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientiousness and openness) personality test or a test based on the HEXACO model (which includes those five domains, plus a measure of honesty-humility). The studies used a range of scales to measure pro-environmental attitudes and behaviours, from one-item scales asking, for example, ‘Is climate change real?’ to assessments of a suite of behaviours, such as donations to environmental charities and recycling behaviour. This isn’t a problem, but an advantage, the researchers argue: “The breadth of measurement allows the results of the meta-analysis to be generalised across a variety of attitudes and behaviours.”
The team found that the personality trait of openness to experience had the strongest association with pro-environmental attitudes and behaviour. This makes sense, the researchers note. More open people tend to be smarter and better-informed, and so may have greater knowledge about the consequences of human actions on the environment, which in turn motivates their environmentalism. People high in openness are also more willing to adopt new ideas — so they may be more likely to buy an electric car, say, or install solar panels.
One other personality trait was just as strongly associated with environmentalism: honesty-humility. This was more of a surprise to the team. But they suggest that as honesty-humility is defined by a tendency to cooperate and not to exploit others, these people may similarly be unwilling to exploit the environment.
Agreeableness and conscientiousness were also associated with environmentalism, though to a lesser extent. Agreeable people tend to show more empathy and compassion, and empathy for future generations or other animals may come into play here. Conscientious people, meanwhile, might be expected to more closely follow socially appropriate norms such as recycling. However, people who are driven to follow social norms may in some cases be discouraged from pro-environmental behaviours: “For example, an often desirable social goal is being able to travel or own a large house. However, both of these behaviours are often not environmentally friendly.”
These findings might in theory be used to design more impactful interventions. Since more open and honest/humble people are more likely to adopt environmentally friendly practices, perhaps those at the other end of these scales should be targeted. To reach people who are less open to new experiences, it might be helpful to highlight environmentally friendly practices which are already established, rather than new, the researchers suggest.
Arguing that there’s a moral imperative to engage in pro-environmental behaviour could also fail to engage those people who are low in honesty-humility and agreeableness, who may be mistrustful of moral-based arguments. Instead, messages could be framed to emphasise personal gains — the cost savings of using electricity rather than petrol as a car fuel, for example.
Of course, other factors also come into play. Age, social norms, childhood experiences with nature, political ideology — all these things and more are linked to variations in environmental attitudes and behaviours. This new study confirms that personality factors can be important, too. And the team would like to see studies that take a more encompassing approach: “The use of multiple frameworks of psychology in a study, such as including all the above factors, could provide a more holistic understanding of why people act or do not act in pro-environmental ways.”