According to a recent study published in the Journal for Environmental Psychology, the personality traits of a country’s population affect its performance in terms of environmental sustainability. The study was led by Dr. Jacob Hirsh, assistant professor of organizational behaviour and human resource management at UTM.

Previous research has shown that individual characteristics can predict environmental attitude. However, this study looks specifically at how entire populations can have a large-scale impact on sustainable behaviour.

“A study of this sort pushes personality psychology beyond where it started… we used to think of personality as a solely individual conquest,” said Hirsh. “We are now starting to understand that there [are] large-scale social implications to personality… within a population,” he added.

Usually, personality tests rely on the five factor model of personality: extraversion, openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Each of these traits relates to sociability, creativity, self-discipline, empathy, and emotional stability, respectively.

“Using a previously published database containing completed personality questionnaires of 12,156 people from 51 different countries… we calculated the national personality scores and then compared them to the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) of each country,” said Hirsh.

Countries that had higher levels of agreeableness (defined as empathy or compassion) and openness (relating to intellectual curiosity and aesthetics appreciation) had higher scores on the EPI.  The other three traits from the five factor model— extraversion, conscientiousness, and neuroticism— had no effect on the EPI score. Other factors such as wealth, education, and population size also did not affect the EPI.

The EPI ranks countries based on how they are managing their ecosystems and environmental resources.  “A number of different environmental indicators taken from different resources are put together to create a composite index of environmental sustainability,” said Hirsh. The method uses 22 environmental indicators in areas such as water resources, air pollution, and climate change.  The higher the value of the EPI, the more environmentally sustainable a country is considered to be.

Often, the discussion about sustainability is centred solely on politics, economics, and ethics. Hirsh wishes to reframe the discussion of environmental stewardship to include the role of psychology in helping to promote sustainable behaviour, which will in turn allow for greater appreciation of the psychological underpinnings of environmental issues.

“This study shows that psychological factors like personality, even on a large-scale, national level, can have an impact on the policy decisions that are put forward and the types of environmental choices that are made,” said Hirsh.

Although the study offers an interesting perspective on the relationship between psychology and the environment, Hirsh mentioned that it has limitations. “We are looking at population differences; there is a lot of variability among individuals even though they may reside in the same country,” he said.

Thus far, the results have been consistent with the EPI predictions.  “It is important to continue the research in this area to understand what consequences entire populations may have on the environment,” said Hirsh.