Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., with Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, right, and Sen. John Barrasso, of Wyoming left, talks with reporters on Capitol Hill on Jan. 7, 2015. One of the Republicans’ first orders of business — approving the Keystone XL pipeline — hit a snag Monday in the Senate. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

On Monday, Senate Republicans came up short — temporarily, anyway — in their push to pass legislation that would approve the Keystone XL pipeline. Democrats successfully filibustered the bill, but if a number of senators had not been absent, that strategy might have failed.

It’s the latest development in a saga featuring, well, unending developments — but if you only monitor the surface of politics, you may miss the tectonic plates moving underneath. Or at least, so suggests a recent study in the journal Environment and Behavior, which seeks to examine how someone’s personality — a feature that tends to be fairly stable over the lifetime and is likely rooted at least in part in genetic influences — may contribute to the development of a particular view of environmental issues.

If the research is right, then when it comes to how people feel (and think) about environmental issues like whether or not to approve Keystone XL, an important element of the matter may be simply outside of our conscious control.

“Personality psychologists aren’t working very much on environmental problems,” says Cameron Brick, the study’s lead author and a PhD student in psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara. His study seeks to change that by adding to an admittedly small literature on what makes people care about the environment, and one of the punchlines is pretty clear — it seems to have something to do with a personality trait called “Openness to Experience.”

This trait — which involves seeking out new information, new experiences, but also being willing to change your mind and intellectually flexible — is one of the “Big Five” personality dimensions, perhaps one of the most scientifically accepted paradigms for studying the human personality. The other four dimensions — Extraversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism, and Conscientiousness — are pretty self-explanatory, with the possible exception of the final one, Conscientiousness (which refers to a preference for order, organization and structure in life).

In Brick’s study, co-authored with Gary Lewis of the University of York in Britain, Openness stood out as the personality factor most strongly associated with environmentalism, which the researchers measured both by directly asking about environmental attitudes, but also through a questionnaire that asked about individual behaviors and practices that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The study subjects were 345 individuals recruited through Amazon.com’s Mechanical Turk Web site, an increasingly popular source for participants in psychology studies (because, the paper explains, they contain a potentially more diverse and representative sample of people than the traditional “lab rat” of psych research — college students).


A demonstrator holds a sign in protest against the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline in San Francisco, California, in this February 3, 2014 photo. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

For Brick, the link with Openness isn’t surprising — indeed, finding it validated the study’s initial hypothesis. He sees at least two reasons  why wanting to try a lot of new things in life, and being comfortable with change, would spur environmentalism.

First, the style of cognition associated with Openness may be more conducive to environmentalism. “This kind of flexible abstract thinking is what we need to imagine long-term and long-distance environmental consequences, like those of climate change,” says Brick.

But that’s not all — let’s face it, Openness is also about being unconventional, different. About thumbing your nose at the system. “Openness is also characterized by a bit of counterculture,” Brick says. “Going away from tradition. So if you imagine that the status quo is what is damaging the environment, it takes a certain kind of person to step outside and criticize the status quo.” (Other research has also tied concern about climate change to being willing to challenge the status quo.)

Granted, the correlation between environmental views and Openness was fairly modest in the study. “Probably on the order or 4 or 5 percent of all the variance of environmental behaviors would be explained by Openness in my data,” Brick says. But he doesn’t find that surprising — a huge number of factors, from our family upbringing, life experiences, friendships and much else, merge together to make us who we are. Just identifying one of them can be a scientific challenge, and psychology studies often turn up similarly sized relationships between variables under study.

Brick also found weaker ties between environmentalism and two other personality traits — Conscientiousness and Extraversion. In the latter case, he thinks that being the kind of person who likes to go out and interact with people may lead to more environmental encounters. “Extraversion is characterized by sociability, but it is also just energetic engagement with activities, people who have a lot of hobbies and like doing things,” he says. That includes joining causes and enjoying being in groups.

The research suggests — as much other work has — that when it comes to disagreements in politics, it isn’t only about the issues under contention. It’s also about the people having the disagreements.

On the one hand, that may suggest that compromise in politics is fundamentally very difficult (no shock to anyone who actually pays attention to the news). On the other, it may ultimately pave the way toward reconciliation: If we recognize that our political adversaries’ opinions are part of who they are, we may be more able to accept those views and the people who hold them — on both sides.

This post is part of our new Energy and Environment coverage. If you like it, please bookmark our pagefollow us on Twittersign up for our online newsletter — and come back often!