Research Summary

Personality, individual differences, and demographic antecedents of self-reported household waste management behaviours

Personality and Other Individual Traits Affect Environmental Behavior

Journal of Environmental Psychology

Across the globe, waste management is a pressing issue. In Britain, the home country of this paper’s authors, the vast majority of the nation’s municipal waste is from households, and the government has emphasized the need for individuals to be part of the country’s waste management strategy. But, the authors note that getting people to take on environmental behaviors such as recycling is no small feat.

Although people’s attitudes often receive a lot of attention in studies of environmental behaviors, in reality, there is often a gap between how people feel and what they do. Researchers have identified a range of other factors that can influence a person’s decisions to act, including feelings of personal effectiveness, the perceived threat of inaction, the subjective norms in the community, and others. This study expands on previous research with a new focus on how people’s personalities and individual differences can affect their waste management behaviors.

Specifically, the researchers looked at the traits of Machiavellianism (the degree to which a person is suspicious of others and believes he must exploit others to avoid being exploited himself), political cynicism (a measure of a person’s interest in public life, idealism, and political determination), and two of the Big Five personality traits of agreeableness (people who are concerned about others) and conscientiousness (associated with intellectualism and achievement). The researchers also included the sociodemographic variables of age and sex.

The team surveyed 100 adult women and 103 adult men in a large train station in London. The participants completed a four-page survey that included a scale of reported waste management behaviors (including reduction, reuse, and recycling), a personality inventory that measures the Big Five personality facets, a Machiavellianism scale, a political cynicism scale, and questions about demographic details. The researchers found that the three waste management behaviors—reduction, reuse, and recycling—were so highly correlated that they combined the three scores into one composite waste management score. And they found that lower Machiavellianism, lower political cynicism, older age, and higher conscientiousness were all associated with better waste management behaviors. The results also suggested that highly Machiavellian people also tended to be more politically cynical, compounding the effects.

The researchers suggest that these findings, though preliminary, offer insight into the puzzling picture of human behavior. Although some behavior models include broad psychological factors, these results suggest that specific factors such as personality can affect environmental behaviors.

The Bottom Line

There is a gap between what people know, how they feel, and how they act. Research, and the behavior models it has generated, has uncovered a variety of situational and psychological factors that can also affect whether a person takes a specific action. This research suggests that a person’s personality and individual differences also can play a role. Specifically, people who are less Machiavellian, less politically cynical, older, and more conscientious are more likely to report undertaking behaviors such as reducing, reusing, and recycling.