A new study conducted in Germany has unveiled a curious link between the darker facets of personality and the drive towards environmental activism. Published in Personality and Individual Differences, the research suggests that individuals at the forefront of environmental causes might not only be driven by altruistic motives but also by traits often perceived negatively, such as those found in the “dark triad” of personality and left-wing authoritarianism.
Background and Motivation Behind the Study
The motivation behind this study stemmed from an observation of the increasingly controversial tactics of environmental movements and a curiosity about the personalities driving these actions. It aimed to explore the potential “dark side” of environmental activism by examining the roles played by certain negative personality traits.
“I’m a professor of psychology and in my research program I investigate predictors of individual behavior related to environmental sustainability, especially in an organizational context,” explained study author Hannes Zacher, a professor of work and organizational psychology at Leipzig University.
“Most previous research had looked at so-called ‘bright side’ personality traits, such as conscientiousness or openness to experience, in relation to environmental activism. Given controversial activities of environmental activists like ‘Just Stop Oil’ or, in Germany, ‘Last Generation,’ such as blocking roads or throwing paint at famous paintings, I wondered if there may also be a ‘dark side’ of environmental activism.”
The dark triad of personality encompasses three distinct but interrelated traits known for their malevolent qualities: Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy. Each of these traits contributes to behaviors often deemed malicious.
Machiavellianism is identified by a cunning approach to social interactions, prioritizing self-advantage through deceit if necessary and harboring a cynical view of society. Narcissism is characterized by an excessive self-regard and a craving for admiration, often leading to entitlement and insensitivity towards others’ feelings. Psychopathy is distinguished by an absence of empathy and remorse, impulsiveness, and antisocial conduct.
Left-wing authoritarianism stands as a parallel yet distinct construct from the traditional notion of authoritarianism, which is typically associated with right-wing ideologies. It comprises anti-hierarchical aggression, advocating for the overthrow of perceived oppressive power structures; anti-conventionalism, rejecting traditional norms in favor of radical, progressive ideals; and top-down censorship, supporting the suppression of opposing views to safeguard and advance progressive values.
How the Study Was Conducted
The study utilized data from a larger longitudinal research project focusing on employed individuals in Germany. Participants were recruited through a survey company from a nationally representative online panel, with criteria requiring them to be at least 18 years old and employed full-time. In total, 839 participants provided complete data relevant to the study’s focal points during a survey conducted in June 2023.
Environmental activism was operationalized through three measures: an 18-item scale assessing engagement in civic environmental actions (such as taking part in a protest), items gauging participation in specific environmental organizations (e.g., “Fridays For Future” and “Last Generation”), and items measuring support for these organizations’ activities. This multifaceted approach allowed for a nuanced understanding of environmental activism, capturing both active participation and supportive attitudes.
For the dark triad and left-wing authoritarianism, established scales were utilized. The dark triad traits were assessed using the “Dirty Dozen” Scale, while left-wing authoritarianism was measured with a short version of the Left-Wing Authoritarianism Scale. Big Five personality traits, demographic characteristics (such as age, gender, and educational attainment), and other variables like political orientation were included as control variables, having been collected at different time points within the longitudinal study.
Key Findings Related to the Dark Triad
The study found that individuals exhibiting high levels of Machiavellianism were more likely to engage in and support environmental activism. This suggests that the tactical and alliance-building aspects of Machiavellianism may be effectively utilized in the context of environmental activism.
Narcissism also showed a positive correlation with environmental activism. The research indicated that those with narcissistic traits, who often seek admiration and possess a sense of entitlement, were more inclined to participate in and support environmental causes. This might be explained by the desire for positive self-presentation and a platform for asserting moral superiority, common in narcissistic individuals.
In contrast, psychopathy, the third component of the dark triad, was not significantly related to environmental activism. This finding aligns with the typically non-violent nature of environmental activism, which may not appeal to individuals with high levels of psychopathy, who often exhibit antisocial and impulsive behaviors.
Key Findings Related to Authoritarianism
The study’s findings on left-wing authoritarianism revealed that antihierarchical aggression and anticonventionalism were positively related to environmental activism. This suggests that those who oppose traditional hierarchies and norms may be driven towards environmental activism as a means of enacting systemic change.
Interestingly, top-down censorship, another dimension of left-wing authoritarianism, did not show a consistent relationship with environmental activism. This could suggest that the authoritarian impulse to suppress opposition may not align neatly with the participatory and democratic nature of most environmental activism.
The Implications of the Findings
“My findings can be interpreted in two different ways: on the one hand, they suggest that people who engage to a greater extent in environmental activism are more narcissistic, Machiavellian, and score higher on the left-wing authoritarian dimensions of antihierarchical aggression and anticonventionalism. That is, environmental activism seems to have a ‘dark side’ in terms of personality,” Zacher told PsyPost.
“On the other hand, my findings could also be interpreted such that environmental activism represents a ‘bright side’ of dark personality constructs: people who are more narcissistic and Machiavellian are more likely to show engagement for the protection of the environment which, in times of multiple environmental crises, is needed.”
Moreover, the study uncovered the influence of demographic variables and other personality traits on environmental activism. Older participants, women, and less educated individuals reported lower support for environmental activism. Agreeableness, which is characterized by attributes like trust, altruism, kindness, affection, and other pro-social behaviors, had a positive correlation with support for environmental activism.
“My findings showed that people who engage in environmental activism are different in their personality traits than people who support, but do not personally engage in, environmental activism,” Zacher said. “People who engage in environmental activism tend to have ‘darker’ personalities, whereas people who just support environmental activism are more agreeable personalities.”
Similar Findings in Other Research
The new findings are in line with another recent study. Published in Current Psychology, researchers found that individuals with higher narcissistic grandiosity were significantly more active in feminist activism, driven potentially by the allure of gaining social status, positive self-presentation, and moral superiority—elements of what the authors term the “dark-ego-vehicle principle.”
Similarly, a 2020 study found a significant correlation between narcissism and political participation in both Denmark and the United States. Individuals with higher levels of narcissism were found to be more likely to engage in various political activities such as contacting politicians, signing petitions, donating money, and voting in midterm elections. Narcissistic traits have also been linked to both right-wing authoritarianism and left-wing authoritarianism.
Limitations and Future Directions
But the new study, like all research, includes some limitations. The sample, though broad, was confined to employed adults in Germany and may not fully capture the diversity of the environmental activist community or the most radical elements within it. The reliance on self-reported measures also raises the possibility of bias in the results.
“My study is based on a large sample of employed individuals in Germany, from different jobs and occupations,” Zacher explained. “Thus, my sample may not be representative of the entire population and the number of extremely radical activists in my sample was relatively small. I did not conduct an ‘extreme group’ comparison between environmental activists and non-activists, which should be done in future research.”
Looking ahead, Zacher aims to further explore the motivations behind environmental activism, especially within organizational contexts, to better understand how to engage teams and organizations in sustainability efforts.
“My team and I want to conduct research that contributes to environmental protection, especially within the contexts workplaces and organizations,” Zacher told PsyPost. “We know relatively well what motivates individuals to support the environment, but we need more research about motivating entire teams and organizations to promote sustainability.”
Zacher’s study breaks new ground in our understanding of environmental activism, revealing that the drive to protect the environment can stem from a complex mix of personality traits, including those typically viewed in a negative light. This nuanced perspective invites us to reconsider the motivations behind activism and the potential for “darker” personality traits to contribute positively to societal causes.
By uncovering the complex relationship between personality and activism, the work opens new avenues for understanding how to mobilize support for environmental causes effectively.
“My article received quite a bit of attention online, especially among climate change skeptics and deniers on X [formerly known as Twitter],” Zacher noted. “It was also retweeted by psychologist Jordan Peterson. I want to be very clear that my research is not based on a political agenda and not funded by any interest group. Personally, I am convinced that climate change is real and that humanity faces multiple urgent environmental crises. At the same time, personally, I think that individuals and organizations can do a lot to actively and constructively deal with these major challenges ahead of us.”
The study, “The dark side of environmental activism“, will be published in the March 2024 issue of Personality and Individual Differences.