Connection to Nature
Guiding Principles for Action
Pro-environmental behavior framework
Climate change is one of the greatest global challenges of our time and most of the damage done to the natural environment is a direct consequence of human behavior (Oskamp, 2000). Although large-scale actions in the form of governmental policies, international agreements and technological inventions are needed, part of the solution to the problem are significant changes in individual’s daily behaviors (Osbaldiston & Schott, 2012). Any behavior that aims at minimizing harm or benefitting the natural environment can be described as a pro-environmental behavior (Steg & Vlek, 2009). Human behavior is very dynamic and influenced by a vast number of psychological and environmental factors, which makes it hard to understand and even harder to predict. Research on pro-environmental behavior has identified various psychological constructs as being related to pro-environmental behavior, such as problem awareness, personality traits, identity processes, personal and social norms, attitudes, intentions, behavioral control, values and there may be even more (Bamberg & Möser, 2007; Hines et al., 1987; Osbaldiston & Schott, 2012). However, primary studies typically only focus on a select few of the relevant psychological constructs and meta-analysis thus far have mainly focused on identifying the strengths of associations of different variables to pro-environmental behaviors. There is no existing framework that integrates all these variables and how they are connected into one comprehensive framework (Soutter et al., 2020). Since many of these psychological constructs overlap and interact with one another, it becomes difficult to reliably point out the effect of a single variable. A more holistic perspective on the individual and its behavior may thus provide a better understanding of what drives or impedes actions under what conditions.
This paper aims at providing a comprehensive overview of all the psychological constructs relevant for pro-environmental behavior by integrating the findings of existing literature on the topic.
The paper is organized into three main categories, being personality, judgment and guiding principles for action. These categories were chosen to distinguish between the enduring dispositional traits and qualities a person brings to tackling a problem – being broad, general individual differences that manifest across situations and are relatively stable over time (personality traits), how they perceive, evaluate and judge the problem (individual differences in cognitive schemes) (McAdams & Pals, 2006) and ultimately what drives them to take (or not take) action and what guides them towards what actions they take.
Personality is defined as individual differences in characteristic patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. It is comprised of major traits, interests, values, beliefs, motivations, self-concept, abilities and emotional patterns (American Psychological Association, 2022). Major personality traits typically refer to broad dimensions of individual differences that are relatively stable across different contexts and over long periods of time (McAdams & Pals, 2006). In order to understand and change more specific behaviors and attitudes, such as pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors, it is important to understand the underlying network of general behavioral tendencies and how the two are related (Karbalaei et al., 2014). Since pro-environmental behavior typically involves a variety of different behaviors and only has a measurable impact when aggregated over a wide range of situations and over extended periods of time, uncovering individual differences in behavioral tendencies and patterns is important, and looking at personality traits may be a fitting approach for that (Markowitz et al., 2012). Since values, beliefs, motivations and attitudes (the more adaptable aspects of personality) will be covered separately in this paper, this section will mainly cover the effects of the major personality traits (Big Five, five factor model and HEXACO personality dimensions) on pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors.
The Big Five Model, Five Factor Model and HEXACO Model are frequently used measures for assessing individual differences in personality on broad dimensions. The Big Five Personality Model (Goldberg, 1990) and the Five Factor Model (McCrae & John, 1992) both use five personality domains, being openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. The HEXACO model (Ashton & Lee, 2007) consists of six personality domains and adds honesty-humility to the other five. Openness, honesty-humility and agreeableness seem to be the personality traits that are most consistently associated with pro-environmental attitudes and behavior, but different studies yield slightly different results, which may in part be explained by the wide variety of scales used to measures pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors (Soutter et al., 2020). Studies typically look at pro-environmental attitudes and/or behaviors and/or environmental concern, each of which can have slightly different associations to each of the respective personality traits.
A comprehensive meta-analysis by Soutter et al. (2020) found openness and honesty-humility to be the strongest correlates of pro-environmental attitudes (r = .22 and .20) and behaviors (r = .21 and .25) out of any of the Big Five and HEXACO personality traits. Agreeableness, conscientiousness and extraversion also correlate with pro-environmental attitudes and behavior, although to a lesser extent (r = .15, .12, and .09) (Soutter et al., 2020). When relating personality traits to environmental concern, Hirsh (2010) found higher levels of agreeableness ( = .22) and openness ( = .20) to be the strongest predictors for environmental concern, followed by neuroticism ( = .16), and conscientiousness ( = .07) and found no significant effect for extraversion ( = .02).
Across various studies, openness and agreeableness seem to be related to pro-environmental attitudes and behavior. Both seem to be predictive of greater environmental concern (Hirsh, 2010), more pro-environmental attitudes and behavior (Pavalache-Ilie & Cazan, 2018), higher environmental engagement (Milfont & Sibley, 2012), reductions in greenhouse gas emissions (Brick & Lewis, 2016) and more political consumer behavior (“ethical consumption”) (Quintelier, 2014). Agreeableness is generally related to more empathy, concern for the welfare of others, selflessness and morality, which might support pro-environmental motives and engagement in pro-environmental behaviors (Hirsh, 2010, 2014; Soutter et al., 2020). The effects of openness on pro-environmental behavior seem to be mediated by an individual’s pro-environmental attitudes (Brick & Lewis, 2016; Markowitz et al., 2012). Even though the link between openness and pro-environmental behaviors is largely consistent, Klein et al. (2019) showed that in situations of mutual exclusiveness of pro-environmental behavior and cooperation, openness was no longer predictive of pro-environmental behavior. This may be because openness seems to be associated with more left-wing and liberal political orientations, which are associated with both a tendency to cooperate and a tendency to behave more pro-environmentally (Klein et al., 2019). Similarly, Lee et al. (2010) found that openness was strongly associated with a socio-political attitude that favors change over social conformity. Therefore, political orientation may at least partially mediate the positive association between openness and pro-environmental behavior.
Honesty-humility also predicts pro-environmental attitudes and behavior (Hilbig et al., 2013; Pavalache-Ilie & Cazan, 2018). Honesty-humility was found to explain additional variance in pro-environmental attitudes above openness and agreeableness. Additionally, it’s effects seem to be mediated by individual differences in pro-social value orientations and tendencies to corporate in social dilemma situations (Hilbig et al., 2013). Lee et al. (2010) found that higher honesty-humility was associated with socio-political attitudes that favor equality over hierarchy. Although political behavior most likely is an interplay between personality profiles and environmental circumstances (Mondak et al., 2010), altogether these findings point to the importance of the far-reaching direct and indirect effects personality traits can have on a wide variety of aspects that might be relevant for pro-environmental behavior.
Higher levels of conscientiousness also seem to be linked to pro-environmental attitudes and behavior (Brick & Lewis, 2016; Hirsh, 2010; Milfont & Sibley, 2012; Soutter et al., 2020), although it’s effects tend to be smaller and weaker (Hirsh, 2010; Markowitz et al., 2012; Soutter et al., 2020). A possible explanation for this association is that more conscientious people are more inclined to follow social guidelines and norms (Hirsh, 2010) and are motivated to “do the right thing” (Markowitz et al., 2012). However, it also makes sense that these associations are weaker because social norms can often be inconsistent or conflicting with pro-environmental behaviors (Soutter et al., 2020).
Neuroticism has been associated with pro-environmental attitudes (Karbalaei et al., 2014; Liem & Martin, 2015), environmental concern (Hirsh, 2010; Hopwood et al., 2021) and environmental preservation (Wiseman & Bogner, 2003). This association may be explained by a higher tendency to worry about negative consequences in neurotic individuals (Hirsh, 2010; Hopwood et al., 2021). Habitual worrying about the environment can even be an adaptive response and is associated with more pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors (Verplanken & Roy, 2013). However, when clustering personality traits into personality types Poškus and Žukauskienė (2017) found that people with low neuroticism combined with high extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness and openness showed to most favorable attitudes towards recycling and the most self-reported recycling behavior, indicating that neuroticism may have negative effects on pro-environmental behavior. It is possible that more neurotic individuals experience less perceived behavioral control and become more easily discouraged when opportunities for action are rare and need to be actively sought out (Poškus & Žukauskienė, 2017). The inconsistency in the findings around neuroticism and worrying may be due to the ambiguous function of worrying itself. Worrying can be a constructive response and can encourage finding solutions, especially when paired with feelings of personal competency and self-efficacy (internal locus of control), but when paired with dysfunctional beliefs about the self (which are often associated with neuroticism) worrying seems to be a rather dysfunctional response that discourages action (Verplanken & Roy, 2013).
The effects of extraversion on pro-environmental behavior also tend to be smaller and less consistent. While extraversion has been linked to higher willingness to pay for and a more positive attitudes towards green hotels (Tang & Lam, 2017), as well as emission-reducing behaviors (Brick & Lewis, 2016), its effects on pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors seem to be smaller than for most other personality traits (Milfont & Sibley, 2012; Pavalache-Ilie & Cazan, 2018; Soutter et al., 2020). Some studies found no significant relationships between extraversion and pro-environmental attitudes and behavior (Hirsh, 2010; Wiseman & Bogner, 2003) and in relation to ethical consumption, extraversion even showed negative effects (Quintelier, 2014). Extraversion is generally associated with a tendency to be more social, person-oriented and more easily engage in action, which might encourage pro-environmental behavior in some situations, but interferes with it in other situations (Soutter et al., 2020).
Apart from the Big Five and HEXACO (higher order) personality traits, various studies have also found more specific, lower-order personality traits to play an important role in predicting pro-environmental attitudes and behavior. Pavalache-Ilie and Cazan (2018) found proactivity alongside pro-environmental attitudes to be the strongest predictors of pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors in comparison to any of the HEXACO personality traits. It should be noted though, that honesty-humility, openness and conscientiousness also showed highly significant correlations with pro-environmental behavior. Proactivity itself was significantly correlated with extraversion, conscientiousness and openness. It therefore seems likely that proactivity is a compound personality trait of high extraversion, conscientiousness and openness (Pavalache-Ilie & Cazan, 2018).
Liem and Martin (2015) found that adaptability is a significant predictor of environmental awareness, concern and pro-environmental attitudes and was able to explain more variance in pro-environmental attitudes in comparison to major personality traits. Adaptability is defined as ‘‘the capacity to make appropriate responses to changed or changing situations; the ability to modify or adjust one’s behavior in meeting different circumstances or different people’’ (American Psychological Association, 2022). It therefore seems fitting, that adaptability plays an important role in response to the challenging circumstances that climate change presents us with (Reser & Swim, 2011). Adaptability was significantly positively related to openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness and extraversion and significantly negatively related to neuroticism (Liem & Martin, 2015). This means that more specific personality traits usually can be traced back to characteristic patterns of expression in the broader Big Five or HEXACO personality traits.
Overall, major personality traits, do show substantial associations with pro-environmental behaviors. Openness and honesty-humility have the strongest and most consistent positive impact on pro-environmental behavior. The effects of agreeableness on pro-environmental behavior are slightly weaker but also relatively consistent. Conscientiousness, neuroticism and extraversion show weaker or in some cases even negative associations with pro-environmental behavior. Most likely, these personality traits are also associated with other behavioral tendencies that are in line with pro-environmental behavior in some situations but interfere with it in others. Even openness, that is strongly associated with pro-environmental behavior, was no longer predictive of pro-environmental behavior, once the choice was between two behavioral tendencies that were both associated with higher levels of openness. For conscientiousness, neuroticism and extraversion such situations may occur much more frequently and therefore make their correlations more variable. Personality traits may not be specific enough to make very accurate predictions about specific behaviors, but they point towards a pattern of what broad individual differences are especially relevant for this category of behaviors. Furthermore, these individual dispositions set the course for the next layer of individual differences that concerns more specific aspects of personal functioning, like what people want, what they value, what motivates them, how they interact with others or how they cope with challenges (McAdams & Pals, 2006), which are also highly relevant for pro-environmental behavior.