People with “dark” personality traits tend to behave in less environmentally friendly ways in everyday life, and view pro-environmental behaviors as imposing a greater burden, according to new research published in Frontiers in Psychology. The findings provide evidence that personality traits influence how people perceive the costs and benefits associated with pro-environmental behaviors.
“In view of the looming climate crisis, I personally keep asking myself why people (despite better knowledge) do not behave in a more environmentally friendly way,” said study author Jana Sophie Kesenheimer, a postdoctoral researcher at the Leopold-Franzens-University of Innsbruck. “There are psychological theories (e.g. the ‘Campbell paradigm’) that take into account the cost and benefit ratios of environmentally conscious decision-making. Our aim for the study was to bring these situational costs and benefits into connection with personality and attitude.”
Kesenheimer and her colleagues were particularly interested in the so-called “light triad” and “dark tetrad” of personality.
The light triad is a group of three personality traits that are associated with positive characteristics such as honesty, empathy, and trustworthiness. The three traits are Kantianism, faith in humanity, and humanism. People high in these traits agree with statements such as “I prefer honesty over charm” (Kantianism), “I tend to see the best in people” (faith in humanity), and “I tend to treat others as valuable” (humanism).
The dark tetrad is a group of four personality traits that are associated with harmful behaviors. The four traits are sadism, narcissism, Machiavellianism, and subclinical psychopathy. People high in these traits agree with statements such as “I hurt others for my own pleasure” (sadism), “People see me as a natural leader” (narcissism), “I love it when a tricky plan succeeds” (Machiavellianism), and “People who mess with me always regret it” (psychopathy).
The initial study included 176 participants who ranged in age from 18 to 68 years. The participants completed scientific assessments of light and dark personality traits, along with a measure of pro-environmental attitudes. After completing this initial survey, the participants received a notification on their smartphones three times a day for seven consecutive days that asked them if they had “acted pro-environmentally at least once in the past 4 hours.” The participants were further asked to rate the costs and benefits associated with these behaviors.
The most commonly reported pro-environmental behaviors were related to food intake, such as eating vegetarian or locally grown food. The second most commonly reported pro-environmental behaviors were related to energy and water conservation, such as dressing warmer rather than turning up the heat.
People with more pro-environmental attitudes and people with stronger light personality traits tended to engage in pro-environmental behaviors more frequently. Those with stronger dark personality traits, in contrast, tended to engage in pro-environmental behaviors less frequently. Similarly, people with more pro-environmental attitudes and people with stronger light personality traits tended to view the behaviors as having greater benefits, while those with stronger dark personality traits viewed the behaviors as having less benefits.
People with stronger dark personality traits, however, reported engaging in more costly behaviors, while the opposite was true among those with stronger light personality traits.
But are people with dark personality traits really engaging in more costly pro-environmental action compared to those with light personality traits? The researchers were skeptical. They proposed that the observed effect was the result of differences in the perception of what is “costly.”
“We originally wanted to show that personality and attitude are more influential in high-cost/low-benefit situations, but are less predictive in high-benefit/low-cost situations (because most people should be pro-environmental in the latter case),” Kesenheimer explained. “Surprisingly, it turned out that the assessment of the costs and benefits depends very much on personality and attitude. So much so that we had to get a second opinion from an independent person (in Study 2) to assess the actions of the people in the first survey.”
In the second study, a sample of 159 individuals viewed and rated the pro-environmental behaviors reported by participants in the first study. The findings confirmed the researchers’ suspicions.
“Above all, we were able to show that, depending on the personality and attitude of a person, there can be a very subjective perception of the costs and benefits of a situation,” Kesenheimer told PsyPost.
“For example, a rather ‘dark’ personality described a great deal of effort involved in using a lid for cooking (he first had to dig the lid out of the drawer). Other people described the same situation on average as being less costly. If you ask a ‘light’ personality or a very environmentally conscious person for their assessment, he or she would probably see much lower costs and high benefits in the same behavior than the ‘dark’ person.”
“We were therefore able to show that the costs and benefits of an environmentally-conscious decision-making situation are anything but clear, but depend heavily on a person’s personality and attitude: some might always see a benefit in any environmental behavior, others just generally see high costs involved.” the researcher explained.
The study, “Going Green Is Exhausting for Dark Personalities but Beneficial for the Light Ones: An Experience Sampling Study That Examines the Subjectivity of Pro-environmental Behavior“, was authored by Jana Sophie Kesenheimer and Tobias Greitemeyer.