Dragon 3: Comparison with other people

We develop our identity not in a void or alone, but in context with other people: We work, play, and live together, observing others, speculating about them, and comparing ourselves to them. These comparisons, in turn, help us define the expression of our abilities and characteristics (Festinger, 1954).

Am I good at math? How should I know if there is no objective standard – i.e. a norm – or if I do not compare myself with others? In terms of environmentally friendly behaviour, this also means that we humans always look to other people first in order to assess what behaviour is “normal” and “appropriate”.

The dragon species of the family comparisons with other people are:

  • Social norms and comparisons – This is (not) proper.
  • Perceived injustice – Fair must be!

A new species of dragon in this family was discovered in 2018 and named Authority rules (Gifford et al., 2018). It is thought to refer to the fact that authorities such as bosses and organizations require us to travel a lot or engage in some other CO2-intensive behavior. However, a more detailed description of this genus is still lacking.

Social norms and social comparisons

Social norms are rules and standards that are shared by the members of a group (Jonas et al., 2014). A distinction is made between injunctive and descriptive norms (Cialdini et al., 1991). Injunctive norms (ideals or descriptive norms) describe whether a behaviour is approved of by a social group (for example, eating with one’s mouth closed) or disapproved of (for example, picking one’s nose).

However, since many social rules are not written in books or instilled in us, we often have to infer what the accepted behavior is from perceptions of situations and interactions.

Descriptive norms (actual norms) are the perceived actual behaviour of the members of a social group, irrespective of the moral component. It does not indicate whether a behaviour is right or wrong. A path trodden by people to show us the way through the forest is a descriptive norm (Harré, 2011). If I am sitting in a room full of people and the majority are clapping, I am likely to clap. If I don’t, I might draw unpleasant attention to myself.

Descriptive norms also show their effect in the sustainability context: hotel guests have fewer towels washed if they are told that other guests are also economical, and households with high energy consumption change their behaviour if they are provided with information about the average consumption in their neighbourhood (Goldstein et al., 2008; Schultz et al., 2007). According to Barth and colleagues (2021), environmentally friendly behaviour is now an injunctive norm in most societies.

However, when two social norms come into conflict, pro-ecological actions apparently lose out (Steentjes et al., 2017). In their study, the team of authors brought two social norms into conflict: the commandment to consider climate protection good and important versus the commandment not to directly contradict superficial acquaintances in small talk. The small talk norm proved to be more significant. This suggests that climate-damaging behaviour is not seen as so immoral that other social norms (such as non-committal politeness in small talk) are set aside for it – regardless of what one thinks oneself: the test persons themselves rejected racism and anti-climactic behaviour almost equally strongly (Steentjes et al., 2017).

A review of 42 original studies on the impact of pro-environmental interventions using social norms was able to show that, despite some exceptions, social norms appear to have a significant impact on pro-environmental behaviors from the areas of energy use, recycling, waste reduction, green consumption, towel use, and pesticide use (Farrow et al., 2017). The consistency with which descriptive norms are relatively more likely to successfully influence behavior (80% of studies) compared to injunctive norms (40%) is attributed by the authors in part to the fact that in the absence of an injunctive norm, people may assume that a very common behavior is also appropriate and desired. Moreover, if one does not recall norms or perceive them, then one will not engage in desirable behavior or infer incorrectly-a result that links the dragon family of social comparison to that of limited reasoning ability or limited cognition.

In contrast to social norms, social comparison plays a role especially when I explicitly and directly compare myself with people who are mostly important to me. This direct social comparison is often examined in studies in which the participants are informed in real time about the decisions of other people before they make their own decision for or against an environmentally friendly behaviour. Here it can be assumed that norms are more likely to emerge and can thus be measured (Biel & Thogersen, 2007).

One example concerns the use of public compost bins and, in particular, how to promote their use. The approach: Undercover staff of the research group pointed into the compost bins for waste separation. When restaurant patrons directly observed the bins being used, they were also more likely to do so (Sussamn & Gifford, 2013). The positive effect of direct comparison using gamified apps has also been demonstrated for electricity conservation (Wemyss et al., 2016; Ro et al., 2017). 

Perceived injustice

Nobody likes to be taken advantage of. Moreover, that would contradict the social norm of “equality”. Accordingly, it is unfair if I should change my behaviour but others do not. Perceived fairness extends across different levels – at least three types of comparisons can be made here and result in different policy choices:

  • intraindividual,
  • interpersonal and
  • intergenerational comparisons (Schuitema & Bergstad, 2019).

Leonardo DiCaprio, for example, fights against fracking, for Siberian tigers, against the ivory trade and for environmental awareness among celebrities who are otherwise only interested in luxury living. But his lifestyle is anything but ecological (Koch, 2016): He likes to drive fast cars, and of all things, the Hollywood star had himself flown from Cannes to New York for an environmental award. And the average consumer then thinks: “If not even DiCaprio, the great environmentalist, abstains from climate sins, why should I?”

For example, one may consider laws establishing wind power unfair and unacceptable if one feels that the wind turbines interfere with one’s view (intraindividual comparison).

A fisherman or fisherwoman may consider a cod quota unfair because it affects his or her business but not the business of herring fishermen (interpersonal comparison).

Intergenerational comparisons imply that people compare current political decisions with decisions for future generations and the effects on nature and the environment.

Studies on public support for environmental policy measures show that, in addition to effectiveness, this also depends strongly on perceived fairness (e.g. Eriksson et al., 2006; Schuitema et al., 2011; Huber et al., 2019; Sommer et al., 2020). Fairness also plays a role in the comparison between one’s own actions and those of large actors: one may feel helpless and view one’s own pro-environmental actions as a “drop in the bucket” when compared to the environmental damage caused by entire countries, such as China (Hope et al., 2018).


Dohm, Lea; Peter, Felix; van Bronswijk, Katharina (Hg.). August 2021. Climate Action – Psychologie der Klimakrise. Psychosozial-Verlag. Giessen Germany.

Gifford, Robert. 2011. The Dragons of Inaction: Psychological Barriers That Limit Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation