Why are some people more likely than others to care about environmental issues like air pollution, climate change, animal rights and ocean conservation? Is it just random, some luck of the draw? Why do some people care enought about certain issues to start taking actions — like becoming an activist or buying an electric car — while others don’t? Are there some underlying personality traits that are common among those who feel strongly enough about nature to want to protect her?

These are complex questions that psychologists are starting to untangle.

For example, a study published last fall gave a personality questionnaire to a group of 345 Americans representative of the country in age, gender and ethnicity. They found that pro-environmental behavior — in this case, taking actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — are most closely linked to the following traits: openness, conscientiousness and extraversion. But don’t feel bad if you are an unconscientious introvert. These are just statistical predictors, not laws of the universe set in stone, that apply without exception.

A second, more recent study on pro-environmental tendencies discovered something that I find even more interesting. This one was conducted in Europe on a sample of more than 2,000 individuals, and its core finding has to do with compassion and empathy. The authors note that “compassion elicits moral actions and judgments across different moral domains which should also be applicable to the environment. Therefore, we expect compassion for other humans to relate positively to proenvironmental tendencies.”

In other words, it seems like people who are compassionate in one area tend to be compassionate in other areas, so the ability to feel empathy for suffering people can translate into empathy for the suffering or animals, or the “suffering” of the planet’s ecosystems on a larger scale. Even issues where suffering isn’t visible, or more diffuse, or indirect, or in the future can apparently trigger this empathy.

To see if there was causality (and not just correlation) between compassion/empathy and environmentalism, researchers did an experiment where they elicited more or less compassionate feelings in test subjects by showing them pictures of things like homeless people and sick children, asking them to either empathize, or to try to remain neutral. They then did some more testing to measure environmental intentions, and found that those who had been primed with compassion were more likely to have higher pro-environmental intentions. So it definitely looks like there’s a causal link present there.

If these findings are true, it seems like the best way to save the planet might be to teach ourselves compassion. And even if that doesn’t lead to more greens, it’ll certainly make the world a better place anyway!

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Michael Graham Richard ( @Michael_GR ) Michael writes for MNN and TreeHugger about science, space and technology and more.