People who feel less connected to nature tend to have heightened levels of psychopathic personality traits, according to new research published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology. The study also found that individuals who exhibit more dark personality traits prefer to reside in urban areas rather than suburban or rural areas.
“Our relationship with nature is a well-documented and timeless experience that is becoming increasing strained due to fast-paced living, hectic life schedules, and an emphasis on convenience,” said study author Dean Fido, MSc Forensic Psychology Programme Lead at the University of Derby.
“However, what we do know about individuals with high degrees of connection with nature is that said individuals are often healthier, have better perceptions of themselves and their body, show greater levels of empathy towards others, and importantly, report fewer instances of stress, anxiety, and depression.”
“Of interest to researchers such as myself in the area of forensic psychology, these correlations with indices of resilience and empathy overlap heavily with individuals who score lower in personality traits which are perceived to be much ‘darker’ in nature, such as psychopathy — and so exploring the complex relationship between psychopathy and connections with nature could yield unique and niche research findings.”
The researchers used the crowdsourcing website Prolific to survey 304 adults from the United Kingdom in January 2019. The participants indicated where they preferred to live among three options: city, suburbs, or rural. They also completed assessments of nature connectedness and the dark personality traits, among other measures.
Fido and his colleagues found that individuals who scored higher on the measure of dark personality traits tended to prefer living in a city over living in suburban or rural areas. In addition, the researchers found a negative relationship between nature connectedness and psychopathy among both male and female participants. In other words, those with heightened psychopathic traits were less likely to agree with statements such as “My relationship to nature is an important part of who I am.”
The researchers replicated their findings in a second study, which included another 235 adults from the United Kingdom.
“Across our studies, we evidenced a relationship between a connection with nature and psychopathy (where those with higher connections with nature reported lower levels of psychopathy), which also mapped onto their preference of where to live (such that those with higher levels of psychopathy reported preferences to live in more densely populated cities than rural areas),” Fido told PsyPost.
Importantly, he noted that the study included non-clinical assessments of psychopathic personality traits, which is not the same as anti-social personality disorder.
“Even though we speak about psychopathy, this is a personality trait which everyone in the general population has to some degree — and unlike damning media representations, is not always deviant and dangerous in nature,” Fido said. “Indeed, many people who exhibit high degrees of psychopathic traits take up work in areas of medicine (e.g., surgeons) and the army owing to their ability to stay cool and calm under pressure and to make judgements that are not based on emotion.”
The findings are mostly in line with a 2018 study, which found that U.S. residents with heightened levels of psychopathic traits had a preference for city-living.
But it is still unclear why those with more psychopathic traits tend to be fond of urban environments. The researchers are interested in examining whether psychopathic traits reduce nature connectedness or whether a lack of nature connectedness increases psychopathic traits.
“We need to go much further in the future to understand why exactly this relationship exists,” Fido explained. “Is it simply that individuals with higher levels of psychopathy develop a more self-serving set of skills that led them to caring more about themselves rather than others and/or nature, and as such their preferences to live in the city reflect greater opportunity to interact with others who can help to facilitate their success?”
“Or can nature play a deeper role in manipulating the way we see the world and our experiences and behavior within it — for example, could we use nature-based interventions (where we get people to interact with nature and to increase their connection with it) to improve their empathy, and in turn adjust (even to a small degree) their levels of psychopathy?”
In the second study, the participants also provided information about where they have lived. But the researchers found no relationship between dark personality traits and population density.
“One important finding of our research which is left not understood is that even though our participants reporting greater levels of psychopathy showed a preference to live in inner cities, measurements of their postal codes since the age of 18 did not indicate actual residency in areas of greater population density,”
“So, questions need to be asked as to how we explain the disparity between preference and actual lifestyle — which could be attributed to matters as simple as opportunity, having to move for education, or even a lack of financial power to live in inner-city areas — all areas which were not measured in the current research paper.”
The study, “Examining the connection between nature connectedness and dark personality“, was published December 2020.