Environmental psychologists realize that to change behavior and attitudes towards the environment, scientists and policymakers must understand people’s personalities. Personality informs people’s beliefs, values, and attitudes, and scientists have found that personality factors can influence our likelihood to engage in environmentally sensitive practices.
The Big Five Personality trait model is the most accepted psychological theory on personality traits. The Big Five Personality traits are Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Openness to new experiences, Extroversion, and Neuroticism (or its inverse, Emotional Stability). Agreeableness is related to cooperativeness, compliance, and caring for others. Conscientiousness is related to carefulness, organization, and responsibility. Openness to new experiences is related to intelligence and aesthetics. Neuroticism is related to depression, anxiety, anger, and insecurity.
Two scientists from Victoria University of Wellington and the University of Auckland examined how the Big Five personality traits are associated with individuals’ environmental values (Study 1). Because people with environmental values do not always act in environmental-friendly ways, the scientists expanded their study to also explore whether the Big Five personality traits are associated with individual behavior (Study 2). Until this study, previous research had only examined the Big Five personality traits and values and behaviors of individuals within a country, but not compared countries. In Study 3, Milfont and Sibley undertook the first analysis of nationwide trends for the Big Five Personality traits and what that may mean for societal-level environmental engagement.
Study 1 asked participants about their attitudes and values about protecting the environment and preserving nature. Consistent with previous studies, they found that environmental value was significantly predicted by differences in the Big Five personality traits, specifically high levels of Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Openness and low levels of Neuroticism. The second survey asked New Zealanders to rate how often they perform 13 electricity-conserving activities like turning lights off when no one is in a room and to answer questions related to the Big Five personality traits. Greater electricity conservation was associated with Agreeableness and Conscientiousness and low levels of Neuroticism, consistent with the results from the first survey.
Milfont and Sibley explored how Big Five Personality traits and environmental engagement compare cross-culturally in the third study. Using large cross-cultural databases on country-level personality traits and country-level environmental engagement, Milfont and Sibley found evidence for how personality is associated with environmental concerns. The scientists used four cross-national databases on environmental engagement—one using objective indicators and three using more subjective indicators including pro-environmental attitudes, environmental concern, and harmonious feelings with nature. With regards to the Big Five personality traits, Milfont and Selby found that environmental values and engagement are most related to Openness and Extroversion, and to a lesser extent, Agreeableness and Conscientiousness. These findings are consistent with the idea that environmental engagement is related to country-level personality traits much like it is associated with individual-level personality traits.
The authors found that across all parts of their study, personality traits only explain some of the effects on environmental engagement. Other variables not examined by this study such as values, norms, identity, and situational factors are also important in explaining individuals’ and countries’ environmental engagement. Nonetheless, even the small effect that personality has on environmental engagement may be enough to help the planet.
Differentiations in personality can mean that appeals for the environment work differently for different people. Using baseline information on individual- and country-level personality and behavior, scientists and policymakers can have a better idea of how to tailor environmental proposals and suggestions to different kinds of people.