Personality Influences People’s Environmentally Friendly Behaviors

With a constant stream of news about coronavirus, it’s easy to overlook the disconcerting news that continues to come out regularly about another global crisis: climate change.

Most recently, a study was released suggesting that the number of extreme heat and humidity events with the capacity to kill human beings has doubled since 1979.

For psychologists, climate change raises an important question about human behavior: when are people willing to alter their lifestyles for the sake of the planet?

A new meta-analysis published in Perspectives on Psychological Science indicates that people’s personality traits play a role in their attitudes to the environment and their propensity to adopt environmentally friendly behaviors.

To put it another way, people’s personalities may determine not just how they treat other people, but how they treat the planet.

In their paper, psychology researchers analyzed 38 previous studies on the relationship between personality traits and proenvironmental behaviors.

Those studies, which altogether encompassed about 45,000 participants, suggested that two traits in particular made people more likely to hold proenvironmental attitudes and to engage in environmentally friendly behaviors:

  • Openness: A tendency to seek out new ideas and a range of different experiences
  • Honesty-humility: A tendency to be modest and truthful and to not manipulate other people

It might make a certain intuitive sense that these traits are linked with acting in environmentally friendly ways.

For example, maybe people who are more open to new ideas are more receptive to learning about scientific findings regarding climate change and to adjusting their lifestyles. And it seems reasonable that those high on honesty-humility, who are less likely to exploit other people, could also be less likely to exploit the environment.

Ultimately, though, more research is going to have to be done to understand the underlying reasons for these connections between personality traits and environmental behaviors.

The researchers found that a few other traits like conscientiousness, agreeableness and extraversion were similarly linked to environmental attitudes and behaviors, albeit not as strongly as openness and honesty-humility.

In any case, the personality traits researchers have studied so far are not the full story. From a psychological perspective, there’s still more we don’t know than we know about who chooses to act in ways that protect the environment. But it does increasingly look like individuals’ personality traits are a part of the puzzle.