Research published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health helps to unravel the relationship between personality and environmentally-friendly eating behaviors. The findings indicate that those who perceive significant barriers to eating fewer meat products are more likely to score high on dark traits and low on conscientiousness, agreeableness, and openness.
Environmental scientists have understood for some time that animal product production contributes to global warming. Changing individual eating behavior can have long-term consequences in the fight against global warming. Jan-Felix Palnau and colleagues were interested in investigating the impact of personality traits on eating behaviors and food choices. Understanding how underlying personality traits may affect who is less likely to choose a plant-based diet can lead to more targeted interventions.
Participants for the study were recruited through crowdsourcing platforms and social media networks utilized in Berlin and Hamburg, Germany. The sample included 1300 participants with an average age of 27. Over 75% of the sample was female, 64% identified as omnivorous, 28% vegetarian, and 8% vegan.
Participants took an assessment of eating behavior over the last 30 days. It was specially created for the study to examine what foods were most often consumed and what foods may have been plant-based, such as hamburgers with vegetarian patties and vegan cheese. They also completed a series of assessments intended to measure the following: Big 5 personality traits (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, & neuroticism), Dark Triad traits, environmentalism, meat attachment, food neophobia (aversion to new foods), food consumption orientations, self-efficacy, and willingness to change eating habits.
A complex statistical analysis of these measures revealed some interesting relationships. First, the subjects were subdivided into five groups of eating attitudes: plant-based eaters, meat-eaters, medium-hindrance meat eaters, medium-strong-hindrance meat eaters, and strong-hindrance meat eaters. The term hindrance in this context refers to how the subject perceives the possibility of moving away from meat eating as an extreme challenge (strong-hindrance), or just mildly difficult (medium-hindrance).
Plant-based eaters and meat-eaters tested high in the personality trait of openness, and meat-reducers scored high in conscientiousness. On the other hand, strong-hindrance meat eaters demonstrated the lowest scores in openness, conscientiousness, and agreeableness. The strong-hindrance group also scored high in Dark Triad personality traits and demonstrated low self-efficacy and environmentalism.
Interestingly, the strong-hinderance meat eaters reported eating less meat than the medium-strong hindrance subjects. The research team hypothesized that this result was due to the desire to look good, which emerged from their collection of Dark Triad traits. These conflicting results do highlight a potential limitation of the study, which was that the data was collected through self-report.
This study gathered an impressive amount of information with a desire to identify how personality may interfere with environmentally beneficial dietary changes. The research team concludes, “Such work may fuel our knowledge regarding the targetability of personality in the context of dietary change interventions, in which high dark trait expression is expected to constitute a barrier based on our initial results using latent profile analysis. In favor of climate change mitigation, interventions may primarily aim for meat reduction in medium-to strong-hindrance meat eaters and shift focus towards the reduction of dairy and eggs in more plant-based eaters.”
The study, “You are what you eat and so is our planet: Identifying dietary groups based on personality and environmentalism“, was authored by Jan-Felix Palnau, Matthias Ziegler, and Lena Lämmle.