The Green Mind

Finding the human place in nature

Are Polite People More Violent and Destructive?

A surprising study reveals who's most likely to do the right thing.

I’ve long thought that it’s the troublemakers and malcontents who will lead the way to a more sustainable, healthier planet, and now there’s some evidence to support this idea.

In a previous post I discussed Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience experiments and what they say about the conditions that lead people to make destructive, harmful choices. It turns out they’re the same conditions that most of us experience in everyday life when it comes to making choices more or less damaging to the environment—and they prompt us to take the more destructive path.

Now a new study using a variation of Milgram’s experiments shows that people with more agreeable, conscientious personalities are more likely to make harmful choices.1 In these new obedience experiments, people with more social graces were the ones who complied with the experimenter’s wishes and delivered electric shocks they believed could harm an innocent person. By contrast, people with more contrarian, less agreeable personalities were more likely to refuse to hurt other people when told to do so.

(One reason that the experimenters wanted to see the effects of agreeableness and conscientiousness is that some observers attributed those traits to Adolph Eichmann, main henchman of the German holocaust against the Jews and others the Nazis deemed inferior.)

The experimenters dug deeper to find out what other personality traits and political characteristics might help identify the people who would choose the more benign, caring path when put under social pressure to conform with harmful behavior. It turns out that people holding left-wing political views were less willing to comply with demands to inflict suffering. A third group was also more likely to go against the grain and refuse destructive orders—women who had previously participated in rebellious political activism such as strikes or occupying a factory.

If we are to bequeath a healthier planet to future generations, we’re going to have to break out of the routine behaviors set up by our contemporary economy and culture—the destructive patterns and complacency that have led to rampant consumption, political inertia, and their consequences—global climate chaos, vast numbers of species going extinct, and poisoned landscapes and seascapes.

But every day, most of us comply with social norms by driving, eating meat, or buying products like shampoos with palm oil—contributing to deforestation and the needless death of orangutans and many other creatures. Often, we do these things in full knowledge of the harms to animals and the environment.

To change these patterns, we need more contrarians willing to set examples by going against societal norms. And we need to give them some leeway and respect.

These will be the people who refuse to buy a car and instead insist on using public transit and car-sharing programs, even as friends complain about the inconvenience. These will be the people telling friends and family to expect fewer, more customized holiday gifts to cut back on the material excesses of the season. They’ll be the people taking more local vacations and encouraging friends to do the same. They’ll be the ones advocating, at the risk of seeming impolite, for the suffering and environmental devastation associated with factory-farmed meat. They’ll rub some people the wrong way and they may make some enemies, but they’ll be at the forefront of the move toward a more just and less degraded world.

To be clear, many such people can be described as conscientious, and their willingness to swim upstream and cause a little friction is a boon to a society much in need of positive change.

The irony is that a personality disposition normally seen as antisocial—disagreeableness—may actually be linked to “prosocial” behavior. This connection seems to arise from a willingness to sacrifice one’s popularity a bit to act in a moral and just way toward other people, animals, or the environment at large. Popularity, in the end, may be more a sign of social graces and perhaps a desire to fit in than any kind of moral superiority.

Of course, none of this excuses rudeness that arises out of arrogance or lack of consideration for others. And the planet certainly needs agreeable people too to join the cause of protecting the planet and moving toward more sustainable lifestyles. But can we give a break to others who might ruffle some feathers while trying to do the right thing?

Note: If you’re disturbed about what you think these findings might say about you, please read my next post.

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1. Laurent Bègue et al., “Personality Predicts Obedience in a Milgram Paradigm,” Journal of Personality. Accepted, not yet published. 10.1111/jopy.12104 See http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jopy.12104/abstract.

Kenneth Worthy, Ph.D., author of Invisible Nature, is a research associate at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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