Research Summary

The big five personality traits and environmental engagement: Associations at the individual and societal level

Personality Predicts Environmental Engagement

Journal of Environmental Psychology

Although studies indicate that personality traits may predict environmental engagement, previous research tends to focus on specific personality traits and associations with individuals. This paper reported on three studies conducted using data from previous studies and surveys to determine whether the Big Five personality traits correlate positively to environmental engagement. The Big Five dimensions of personality are neuroticism, openness to experience, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and extraversion. This paper also extended existing research by examining these associations at both an individual and country level.

In the first study, researchers sampled 6,507 participants from the 2009 New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study. A four-item measure of each of the traits in the Big Five model determined personality dimensions. To assess environmental values, the authors extracted data from one item asking participants to rate the importance of “protecting the environment (preserving nature).” This study found strong correlations between environmental value and the personality traits of agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to experience.

The second study was an extension of the first. Still looking at the individual level, the authors sought to connect personality with environmental engagement through specific behaviors. The researchers analyzed data from 377 participants in the 2008 Social Attitudes Survey in New Zealand, which took place in three “waves” from June 2008 through January 2009. A ten-item personality inventory measured the Big Five dimensions, and 13 items asking participants to rank how often they performed electricity-conserving actions (e.g., “Turn the lights off in the room that are not being used”) were used to determine environmental engagement. Again, agreeableness and conscientiousness were strongly associated with environmental engagement, as well as neuroticism.

With the third study, the authors determined the relationship between country-level personality and environmental engagement. Mean scores of each of the Big Five personality traits were gathered for 51 countries from a study conducted in 2005 as part of the 79 Members of the Personality Profiles of Cultures Project. Four separate indices were used to assess country-level environmental engagement. The authors determined that agreeableness, openness, and extraversion were consistently associated with environmental engagement at the national level, as well as conscientiousness, to a lesser extent.

The findings from the three studies aligned with findings from other research. Agreeableness and conscientiousness consistently have positive associations with environmental engagement. Agreeableness in particular has been related to self-transcendence, which is in turn related to environmental engagement. Individuals with a strong tendency towards agreeableness also tend to act pro-socially, which the authors argued is a driving force behind the actions of environmentalists. Conscientiousness is related to a “future time perspective.” Individuals high in conscientiousness plan ahead, including with regards to the environment.

Openness to experience was associated with environmental engagement to a slightly lesser degree. The authors theorized that these individuals are curious and tend to have unconventional beliefs that, in many cases, include those of the environmental movement. Extraversion only had an association with environmental engagement at the country level, indicating that the personality traits have different effects when considered at different levels of analysis. The authors linked extraversion with a “disbelief in the role of fate” and connected the rise of the post-material culture in many countries to increasing concern for environmental protection. Neuroticism, while having a positive association with environmental engagement in the second study that focused on specific behaviors, had a negative association for both the first and third studies. This difference in relationship may be attributed to neurotic individuals’ concern with negative outcomes and the consequences that are happening in the moment—such as specific behaviors—rather than projecting into the future.

The authors concluded with a look at meta-traits that combine the Big Five into two categories of stability (neuroticism, agreeableness, and conscientiousness) and plasticity (extraversion and openness). Environmental engagement seems to link to both stability and plasticity, but the connection to stability is slightly stronger and indicates an “underlying need to maintain a stable environment,” whereas plasticity is indicative of change. However, although the authors acknowledged these connections, they called for more empirical investigations linking meta-traits with environmental attitudes.

The Bottom Line

The personality traits that relate to pro-social behavior and planning for the future, such as agreeableness and conscientiousness, were those most strongly linked to environmental engagement for both individuals and nations. In general, personality traits may be used to predict environmental engagement on both an individual and a national level. Understanding the general behavioral tendencies of individuals and cultures may also lead to more effective educational efforts that encourage particular behaviors and attitudes. In addition, this study suggested that promoting agreeable and conscientious behavior in general may concurrently be creating a fertile ground for environmental engagement to take root.