In recent months, the environmentalist group ‘Just Stop Oil’ has earned a reputation for particularly deranged acts of protest, such as blocking traffic on busy roads and chucking paint over priceless works of art. Could such obstreperous behaviour reflect the personalities of the activists?
In a new study, the psychologist Hannes Zacher explores what he calls the “dark side” of environmental activism. He administered a survey to a sample of 839 Germans in full-time employment. Respondents were asked about their involvement in, and support for, environmental activism. Items included, “In the last six months, I took part in a protest/rally about an environmental issue,” and “I support the actions of the organization ‘Fridays for Future’ [an environmentalist group in Germany]”.
In addition, respondents were asked to complete several personality tests. There was a test measuring the ‘dark triad’ traits (Machiavellianism, psychopathy and narcissism) – which included items such as, “I tend to manipulate others to get my way,” and “I tend to want others to admire me”. There was also a test measuring a trait called ‘left-wing authoritarianism’ – which included items such as, “The rich should be stripped of their belongings and status,” and “The ‘old-fashioned ways’ and ‘old-fashioned values’ need to be abolished”.
What did Zacher find? Both involvement in environmental activism and support for environmental activism were positively associated with all three dark triad traits and with two aspects of left-wing authoritarianism. The correlations were not trivial either – ranging from r = .15 to r = .52. In other words, environmental activists in Germany tend toward Machiavellianism, psychopathy, narcissism, anti-hierarchical aggression and anti-conventionalism.
Zacher also ran multivariate models, where he looked at the effect of each psychological measure controlling for demographic characteristics like age, sex and education (and controlling for the other measures). The results are shown below.
As you can see, Machiavellianism, anti-hierarchical aggression and anti-conventionalism were consistent predictors of involvement in environmental activism, while narcissism and anti-conventionalism were consistent predictors of support for environmental activism. Hence the associations Zacher observed could not simply be attributed to confounding by demographic characteristics – not in every case, at least.
As an aside, including all the psychological measures in the same model was a slightly odd analytical choice on Zacher’s part, since some of them are quite highly correlated – which can make it hard to interpret the results. In my view, running a separate multivariate model for each measure makes more sense. It’s possible that, had the author done so, all the associations would have remained statistically significant.
The author notes that his findings support the ‘dark-ego-vehicle principle’, which suggests that “people with high levels of the dark triad traits may use activism as a means to satisfy their ego-focused needs”.
He also points out that environmental activists may be particularly effective at changing people’s attitudes in virtue of their dark triad traits. And this seems plausible: environmentalists in Germany managed to get the country to abandon nuclear power – despite this being the only large-scale and reliable alternative to fossil fuels.
A useful follow-up would be to repeat the study on a British sample. We could see whether the same applies to ‘Just Stop Oil’ activists.