The Green Medium is an Emerald Award-winning, youth-run blog that seeks to innovate how we discuss and inform ourselves on environmental concerns.

Why do some people become environmentalists? The psychology behind it

Nature vs. nurture ― this is a question commonly debated upon in nearly all aspects of psychology, but who knew it could affect how much of a tree-hugger you are? That is something that psychologists are beginning to grasp through recent studies in the correlation between personality and environmentalist leanings. Although it may appear that an interest in environmental advocacy is something that is learned through education and social/media influence, studies show that perhaps the “nature” aspect of us ― our personality, which is partially determined by our genetics ― shapes our view of environmental issues.

For example, a study has shown that people who score on the higher end of the personality traits of openness, extraversion, and conscientiousness (traits based on the Five Factor model developed by Paul Costa and Robert R. McCrae) seemed to be more likely to have green tendencies. This definitely does not mean that if you prefer to spend time alone and keep to yourself that you’re not a fan of the environment! After all, correlation does not imply causation. Another study has revealed that people who show a heightened sensitivity to the suffering of other people also show green tendencies ― perhaps this shows that many human rights advocates are also environmental activists, and vice versa. This is not a surprising result, because one who generally cares about the plight of their fellow human beings would likely care about the surroundings human beings are in and will live in for the future.

What is surprising, however, is the results of an experiment performed by Stefan Pfattheicher of Ulm University in Germany and two colleagues. They attempted to test if there was a causality, and not just a correlation, between empathy and environmentalism. Test subjects who were told to feel compassion when shown pictures of suffering were more likely to have stronger environmental intentions in contrast to test subjects who were told to remain neutral when shown the same pictures. Perhaps this suggests that a different approach should be taken when trying to persuade others to become more environmentally aware ― rather than giving them hard facts about climate change, endangered species, and the like, it appears that an indirect approach through the means of convincing others to feel compassion for the general suffering of others can provoke green tendencies.

The psychology behind why some people just seem more inclined to care about the environment than others is fascinating. Not only can it explain why we care, but also how we can convince others to do so as well ― and this can be fundamental in changing societal views on approaches to environmental issues we face today.

- Jenny Le



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