The Role of Nature in Psychopathic Personality

By Dean Fido

Humans share a well-documented and powerful connection with the natural world. Research has consistently found that individuals whose lives are interwoven and connected with nature experience benefits and improvements across many domains: quality of life, body image, and both mental and physical wellbeing. In the psychological sciences, the tendency for individuals to include nature as part of their identify is termed nature connectedness and encapsulates variation in the way in which people cognitively and affectively construct their relationship with the natural world.

Although we know people vary in the degree to which they feel connected with nature, nature connectedness and one’s connection with the natural world has not previously been used to explain variation in traits and behaviours prevalent in forensic populations. Such metrics include psychopathic personality, commonly conceptualised as a constellation of maladaptive affective and interpersonal traits and behaviours associated with blunted affective responses, manipulative actions, and anti-social and violent behaviour. As being connected with nature requires an individual to be altruistic and invested in the wellbeing of entities other than themselves, we would expect individuals reporting high levels of nature connectedness to also be low scorers on psychopathy.

Our research group at the University of Derby (UK) recently established the first evidence of a connection. For this study, we tested whether there exists any preliminary relationship between nature connectedness and psychopathic personality traits (i.e., deficits in empathy and an emotional connection to others). Moreover, we sought to test whether such relationships might manifest in preferences about where people choose to live throughout their lives (i.e., rural areas with large access to nature vs. inner city and nature-deficient areas).

Data suggested that higher self-reported measures of nature connectedness did indeed predict lower levels of psychopathy. This pattern was also evident for measures of Machiavellianism (e.g., cynicism and manipulation) and sadism (e.g., enjoyment of inflicting and watching pain in others), such that people with higher levels of these traits report feeling less connected with nature.

These relationships persisted even when considering dispositions to be connected with wider aspects of society; suggesting a unique role of nature connectedness that cannot be conflated with a greater need for connection with society. Although psychopathy did not predict the population density of where individuals had lived throughout their lives (in theory, higher population density areas have lower levels of nature), more psychopathic participants did report preferring to live in inner-city, relative to rural and suburban areas – suggesting that the likely, yet unmeasured roles of affordability and opportunity to live in inner-city areas played a part here.

We followed this research up with a second study, wherein we once again found an inverse relationship between nature connectedness and psychopathy (although this time we focused on callous and uncaring traits, which are the core affective features of psychopathy). Moreover, our data indicated a potential mechanism underpinning this relationship. That is, a strong connection with nature was positively correlated with measures of empathy, of which our ongoing applied research in this area hopes to better understand whether developing this connection to nature through intervention may help people to develop cognitive and affective empathic responses. Cognitive empathy represents our ability to take the perspective of another individual, and affective empathy represents our ability express emotive responses to others. This finding makes theoretical sense given what we already know about individuals with psychopathy and their stunted ability to respond to the emotions of others.

A third study also found that nature connectedness might impact people’s ability to effectively regulate their emotions. Difficulty in regulating emotion can, in some instances, lead to aggression, violence, and other kinds of antisocial behaviour, as well as other outcomes like poor health. Our data indicated that people who are more connected to nature are also more likely to use a valuable emotion regulation strategy called cognitive reappraisal. This refers to the reinterpretation of thoughts or stressors to improve mood. However, this relationship was only evident in individuals with low, relative to high levels of psychopathic personality traits, suggesting a pervasive role of psychopathy in impacting the appropriate response to emotionally taxing stressors.

To compound this, we found a positive – albeit weak – relationship between psychopathy and the use of expressive suppression strategies (i.e., controlling emotions by not suppressing them), which are considered a maladaptive method of emotion regulation. In practice, this means that individuals who score high on psychopathy are likely to favour expressing negative emotions (e.g., anger, frustration, or even violence) during stressful events.

Take home messages and future research

Together, this programme of research has established a consistently strong inverse relationship between nature connectedness and psychopathy. Although it would be remiss of us to suggest that nature connectedness is a core predictor of psychopathic personality, given its wider known biological and developmental influences, this research allows us to better understand how we might be able to mitigate how psychopathy manifests in the general population. Whether enhancing nature connectedness in children might provide them with better empathic and emotion regulation skills, and thus at less risk for developing psychopathy, will be important to explore.

Although nature connectedness is considered to be relatively stable across our lifespan, previous research by our group has established cost, time, and resource-efficient interventions proven to increase one’s connectedness with nature. A successful trial of this intervention within offender populations might offer a complimentary means of reducing aggressive and violence behaviour within (and outside on release from) forensic settings.

Our natural world is becoming smaller by the day, yet the true benefits of connecting with it is only just emerging. I hope that you have found this preliminary work informative, and I would very much welcome calls for collaboration or networking in and around this area.

References

Fido, D., Rees, A., Clarke, P., Petronzi, D., & Richardson, M. (2020a). Examining the connection between nature connectedness and dark personality. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 72, 101499.

Fido, D., Rees, A., Wallace, L., & Mantzorou, L. (2020b). Psychopathy Moderates the Relationship Between Nature Connectedness and Cognitive Reappraisal. Ecopsychology, 12(4), 301-308.

Fido, D., & Richardson, M. (2019). Empathy Mediates the Relationship Between Nature Connectedness and Both Callous and Uncaring Traits. Ecopsychology, 11(2), 130-137.

Dr. Dean Fido is a Senior Lecturer in Forensic Psychology. E: deanfido.psych@gmail.com