Why Countries With the Nicest People Are the Greenest

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Switzerland holds the top spot on the Environmental Performance Index. By emperorcosar/Shutterstock

The Environmental Performance Index is a method of scoring the overall greenness of countries. The index, based on algorithms created by researchers from Yale and Columbia, looks at nation-level policies and practices that directly or indirectly affect the environment. It gives each of these variables a numerical value. When figuring a nation's EPI, experts take into account water quality, natural habitat conservation, air pollution, emissions per capita and the sustainability of natural resources.

Perhaps some of the nuances of a country's environmental stewardship get left out of the equation, but major variables such as pollution levels and conservation policies paint an accurate picture.

A professor at the University of Toronto's Mississauga’s Institute for Management and Innovation realized something interesting when looking at the latest EPI scores. He saw countries that ranked highly in the index also scored well in specific areas of personality trait surveys.

The hypothesis of the researcher, Jacob Hirsh, might seem simplistic, or even silly, at first. He contends that countries with open, compassionate and friendly people are also the most eco-friendly places on Earth. In short, nicer people equal a greener country.

Not some sort of hippie math

Hirsh's research has focused on proving that this is not some sort of out-there math equation; it’s a mathematical reality. Using data on two specific personality traits of each nation's citizens, he was able to accurately predict a country's EPI score. The two traits he considered were agreeableness (compassion and empathy) and openness (flexibility and acceptance). Graphs of the results show that, on average, higher personality scores in these two areas corresponded with higher EPI rankings. Here is the "agreeableness" graph.

Agreenableness graph of nations

Giving a numerical score to something as subjective as personality traits might seem suspect on some level. Hirsch's results, however, show there is something to his ideas. Switzerland, the top-ranked nation in the past two Environmental Protection Indexes, also scored very high in the agreeableness and openness surveys. The same relationship between personality and the EPI was seen in countries such as the U.K., Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic. These results led Hirsch to contend that a nation's personality can help predict its environmental friendliness.

“Not only can a person’s attitudes about the environment be predicted from his or her personality traits, but the environmental practices of entire nations can be predicted from the personality profiles of their citizens,” he says.

A paper detailing Hirsch's findings was published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.

Although the idea of a link between personality traits and environmental friendliness seems to hold some water, plenty is left for discussion.

One of the most obvious is factors that affect the personality of people in these places. Countries that scored poorly on the agreeableness and openness surveys were mostly places that have a low level of political and economic stability. How do the realities of day-to-day life in less-than-ideal conditions affect personality?

Meanwhile, places with higher agreeableness and openness scores generally had higher GDPs and enjoyed relatively stable governments.

This begets a chicken-or-egg question: Is it the people's personality that led to a better quality of life or the better quality of life that led to happier, more open population? For Hirsch's theory to be relevant, the former has to be true.

Another possible issue is that only 46 countries were included on the graphs published by the University of Toronto. The world's most populous nations were all included, but high EPI scorers Luxembourg (No. 2) and Singapore (No. 4) were nowhere to be found on the graphs.

Still, though, the numbers and graphs tell an interesting story, and if you were to bet on the results of the next Environmental Protection Index, due in January 2016, you could almost guarantee a winning wager by looking at the countries' personality trait scores.