Hot-headed or Cold-blooded: Temperature Affects Our Behavior

While on a consultancy project in Central America, a development professional made the joke that the best thing that aid agencies could do for Central America to improve its economic development is to seal it up in a big bubble and run air conditioning through the region. This proposition is obviously unrealistic, though it conjures up quite the image of a dome locking in cool air right in the middle of Central America. Yet, this was a fantasy solution to a real problem: the hot, sticky summer heat was making it difficult to get any work done. This feeling is more than anecdotal; temperature actually affects our behavior, ranging from productivity to outright crime.

A World Economic Forum study shows that in the United States, “productivity per individual workday declines 1.7 percent for each 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (F) rise in temperature above 59 degrees F. A weekday above 86 degrees F costs a county an average of $20 per person in lost income.” The study also finds that the “frequency of interpersonal conflict increases by 2.4 percent.” As well as larger scale conflicts over water and natural resources, as has been observed through the conflict in Syria, increased temperatures have been linked to interpersonal conflict such as road rage, assault, and domestic violence. Inter-group tensions, including ethnic and gang violence, can also be exacerbated.

While much of lost productivity is related to income sources that specifically rely on the weather, such as farming, productivity is affected across the board, including for factory work. Another study finds that developing countries are vulnerable to decreased productivity linked to temperature increases. Employees explained that they did not want to go to work on extremely hot days but were willing to do so if their employer provided some sort of temperature control. An estimate suggests that 3 percent of manufacturing output in India was lost, compared to a scenario without temperature rises. Additionally, temperature increases outside general human comfort (approximately 64 to 72 degrees F) have been shown to bring down test scores and task performance.

Not only heat puts people in a fiery mood; cold can be equally influential in behavior changes. Among odder observations, cold weather has been linked to women’s subconscious desire to wear red and pink colors, inspired people to watch romantic movies, and made some people less trusting. In this way, the effect of temperature on behavior is U-shaped, in that the extremes have the greatest influence on people.

However, it is difficult to tease out all the distinctions between behavior change caused directly by temperature change, as opposed to other conditions that are symptoms of behavior change. Think of a colder-than-usual day that leads to ice on the roads, building up to a car collision that sets up the two drivers to get in a bout of road rage. Is their aggressive behavior linked to being cold or to anger from being in a collision that was caused by ice on the road? The complex relationship between causation and effect make it difficult to prove the relationship between climate change and adverse behavioral effects.

On an individual level, the relationship between temperature and behavior is something to be aware of when you’re in the mood to fight your way to the nearest fan on a summer afternoon. In the context of average global temperature change brought on by anthropogenic climate change, it will be key to consider how to adapt offices, transport systems, cities, and other aspects of people’s daily lives to different patterns of human behavior. Sometimes it really is as simple as installing air conditioning to get people to feel comfortable at work, but it won’t be possible to install it at a regional level.


Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on July 3, 2018.

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