Dragon 7: Limited behavior

For most people, there is still room for a smaller carbon footprint through behavioral changes. Many of us are nevertheless quite satisfied with our current environmental behaviour. This can be explained by spill-over effects: one behaviour has an impact on subsequent behaviour – it spills over, so to speak.

The last dragon family Limited Action is composed of the following species:

  • Symbolic actions – I do separate the garbage.
  • Rebound phenomenon – The car is economical, so I can drive to the bakery.
Symbolic actions

Many popular individual climate and environmental protection measures, such as not using plastic bags, unfortunately have only a small climate protection effect (Gifford & Chen, 2016; Huddart Kennedy et al., 2013). This can be explained by the single action bias (a variant of negative spill-over effects) (Truelove et al., 2014). We do a good deed and then have the impression that we have done enough to solve the problem. Fear of the climate crisis decreases, we feel better.

To make matters worse, in the climate and biodiversity crisis individual behavioural changes are no longer sufficient, but collective, political action in particular must also take centre stage. Here, many people still lack concrete possibilities for action and experiences of self-efficacy.

Rebound phenomenon

If a climate-friendly effect is reduced by allowing ourselves more of it, a rebound effect has occurred: If my car is more fuel-efficient, I drive it more often (direct rebound effect).

The behavior drops on the moral reprehensibility scale – then we can act again without a guilty conscience, because we have done enough (Moral Licensing; Dütschke et al., 2018).

Moral licensing also leads us to feel such moral integrity after climate-friendly actions that we would be less likely to support other climate-friendly actions or political climate protection measures (indirect rebound effect) – in other words, we rest on our laurels (Truelove et al., 2014).

The rebound phenomenon can also be viewed macro-economically – in the mobility sector, for example, the rebound effect wipes out efficiency gains of between ten and 30% (Dimitropoulos et al., 2018), and across all sectors (mobility, energy, etc.) the global rebound effect is predicted to be around 30%, rising to over 50% by 2030 (Barker et al., 2009).

As already described with the self-efficacy dragon, starting with small steps can also lead to us trusting ourselves with sustainability behaviours that are more difficult to implement, because our self-efficacy expectations increase (Lauren et al., 2016). So, there are also positive spillover effects in different areas (Truelove et al., 2014).

When a previous behaviour leads us to act less sustainably afterwards (negative spill-over effect) or to act more sustainably (positive spill-over effect) depends on various factors.

One factor is that we as humans strive to act as consistently as possible so that we cannot be accused of being hypocritical in retrospect. But we also act consistently, i.e. coherently with previous behaviour, when no one is watching; psychologists explain this by the fact that we incorporate the behaviour into our identity, form an “environmental identity”: “I am a person who acts in a socially/environmentally friendly/… I am a person who acts socially/environmentally friendly/…” – and we want to stand by this later on and stick to it. An Environmental Identity predicts positive spillover effects from environmentally relevant behaviour.

For us to understand the behaviour as part of our personality, it is important that the decision to engage in the first environmentally friendly behaviour is not extrinsically motivated (i.e. externally prescribed), made for purely rational reasons (for example, saving money), or to remove unpleasant emotions (for example, guilt or fear), but because the expectation of the role (or social norm) dictates it (Truelove et al., 2014) – i.e. it serves to fulfil the identity.


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