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  • Voltaire Staff

Environmental activists high on narcissism, Machiavellianism: Study

A recent study reveals a connection between darker personality traits and engagement in environmental activism, the more egregious type of which is often labelled as left-wing extremism.

Published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, the research published in Germany explored the influence of the "dark triad" traits and left-wing authoritarianism on individuals involved in environmental causes, shedding light on the less altruistic motivations behind their actions.

The study was prompted by the controversial tactics of environmental movements, which involve defacing public structures, even classic paintings.

The study's author, Hannes Zacher, a professor of work and organisational psychology at Leipzig University, said that while most previous research had looked at so-called 'bright side' personality traits, such as conscientiousness or openness to experience, in relation to environmental activism, he was more interested in the influence of darker traits among such activists.

"Given controversial activities of environmental activists like 'Just Stop Oil' or, in Germany, 'Last Generation,' such as blocking roads or throwing paint at famous paintings, I wondered if there may also be a 'dark side' of environmental activism," he said.

The dark triad comprises three interconnected malevolent personality traits – Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy.

Machiavellianism involves a cunning approach to social interactions, prioritising self-advantage through deceit and fostering a cynical view of society.

Narcissism is marked by excessive self-regard, a craving for admiration, and tendencies towards entitlement and insensitivity to others' feelings.

Psychopathy is characterised by a lack of empathy and remorse, impulsiveness, and antisocial behaviour.

Left-wing authoritarianism involves anti-hierarchical aggression, seeking to overthrow oppressive power structures. It is about rejecting traditional norms for progressive ideals, and top-down censorship, suppressing opposing views to promote progressive values.

The study gathered data from a large project on employed individuals in Germany.

In June 2023, 839 participants (aged 18 and employed full-time) were recruited from a nationally representative online panel using a survey company.

The authors used established scales, such as the 'Dirty Dozen' for the dark triad and a brief 'Left-Wing Authoritarianism Scale,' to assess these traits.

The study revealed that individuals with high Machiavellianism were inclined to support environmental activism.

Similarly, narcissism showed a positive correlation with environmental activism, with individuals possessing narcissistic traits more likely to engage in environmental causes for self-presentation and asserting moral superiority.

On the contrary, psychopathy, the third dark triad trait, did not significantly relate to environmental activism, aligning with the non-violent nature of such causes that may not appeal to individuals with high psychopathy known for antisocial and impulsive behaviours.

The study found a positive correlation between left-wing authoritarianism traits like anti-hierarchical aggression and anti-conventionalism, and environmental activism.

The finding implied that individuals opposing traditional hierarchies and norms may be motivated to engage in environmental causes as a way to bring about systemic change.

The dimension of left-wing authoritarianism related to top-down censorship did not consistently align with environmental activism, an indicator that the authoritarian inclination to suppress opposition may not neatly fit the participatory and democratic nature of most environmental activism.

Those engaged in environmental activism exhibit "darker" personality traits, whereas supporters tend to have more agreeable personalities.

"My article received quite a bit of attention online, especially among climate change sceptics and deniers on X," Zacher said.

"It was also retweeted by psychologist Jordan Peterson. I want to be very clear that my research is not based on a political agenda and not funded by any interest group. Personally, I am convinced that climate change is real and that humanity faces multiple urgent environmental crises," he said.

He added, "At the same time, personally, I think that individuals and organisations can do a lot to actively and constructively deal with these major challenges ahead of us.

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