I’m kind of curmudgeonly at the best of times, but apparently there’s a reason I always feel especially irritable during the summer: According to science, hot weather legit makes us hate everyone. More specifically, uncomfortably warm temperatures correlate with a dramatic drop in “prosocial behavior” — so if you’ve ever found that you’re less likely to want to do things to help out other people in the summer? It's probably because you're super overheated. Whomp, whomp.
According to The Handbook of Social Psychology via VeryWell, the term prosocial behavior refers to “a broad range of actions intended to benefit one or more people other than oneself — behaviors such as helping, comforting, sharing, and cooperation.” Although it sounds quite similar to altruism, it’s not necessarily the same thing; whereas altruistic people typically act selflessly — that is, they do nice things for other people even if they don’t stand to get anything out if it themselves — as iResearchnet notes, “Prosocial behaviors can be performed for a variety of reasons, ranging from selfish and manipulative reasons (e.g., helping get something in return) to moral and other-oriented reasons (e.g., helping because of moral principles or sympathy for another’s plight).” The term “prosocial” itself was created to be an antonym for “antisocial.”
What’s more, there are an awful lot of factors that affect whether or not we display prosocial behavior — one of which, it seems, is ambient temperature. For their paper “Too Hot To Help! Exploring the Impact of Ambient Temperature on Helping,” which was recently published in theEuropean Journal of Social Psychology, researchers Liuba Belkin of LehighUniversity and Maryam Kouchaki of Northwestern University conducted three different experiments in order to examine whether ambient temperature affects how willing we are to help other people — and the results explain so much. Said Belkin to Quartz, “To our knowledge, this was the first study to establish the connection between ambient temperature and a reduction of prosocial behavior with data.”
The first part of the study analyzed data from 2010 and 2011 provided by a Russian retail chain, comparing secret shopper visits during both a typical summer and one in which a terrible heat wave had descended upon Moscow. The researchers found that during the heat wave, employees were 50 percent less likely to do things like volunteer to help customers, practice active listening, or make suggestions to customers — all common prosocial behaviors.
The second part of the study recruited 160 participants online and divided them into two groups. The first group was asked to remember a time when they felt uncomfortably warm, then complete a survey assessing their mood and how they felt, energy-wise, and a trivia quiz. (The trivia quiz was meant to disguise the study’s point; participants were told that it was about "recall and problem solving," according to Quartz) Then, the twist: Just when they thought they were finished, they were asked to complete a second, optional survey. The second group functioned as the control; they completed the same survey- and quiz-based tasks as the first group, but without first being asked to imagine themselves in a hot environment. The researchers found that only 44 percent of people who were instructed to think about being in a hot environment before completing the other asks volunteered to take the optional survey — but 77 percent of the control group completed it.
Lastly, the researchers took a look at a real-world situation: Two sections of a college management course each listened to a lecture held in a classroom before being asked if they would answer a few questions and fill out a survey to help out a nonprofit organization that works to benefit underprivileged kids and individuals. One section’s classroom was kept at 26.7 degrees Celsius, or about 80 degrees Fahrenheit, while the other was comfortably air conditioned (Science Daily reports that there was about a 15 percent difference in the rooms’ temperatures). Here, too, there was a dramatic difference in whether the students were willing to extend a helping hand: About 95 percent of students in the air conditioned room answered at least one question, while only about 65 percent of students in the hot room did so. What’s more, they answered fewer questions overall: The hot room students answered about six questions on average, while the air conditioned room students answered about 35.
Taken together, the results seem to suggest that when it’s hot out, we’re much less likely to want to do things in order to help other people — and although I frequently make jokes about how much I hate other people, on a more serious note, I think this is something we should consider as yet another reason that climate change matters. Psychology Today notes in their recent piece on the study that a lot of places in the United States have been experiencing record-breaking temperatures this summer; indeed, San Diego County apparently had its highest-ever recorded temperature on June 20, a mind-blowing 124 degrees Fahrenheit. So, with climate change, not only are we looking at the destruction of our planet (which, y’know, is awful and terrible and we should be doing everything in our power to reverse or at least halt the damage we’ve caused), we’re also looking at the potential for people to get a whole lot meaner, as well. And gee, doesn’t being stuck on a dying planet with a growing population of people being absolutely awful to each other sound swell? (No. No, it does not.)
It’s not always easy to stay cool, and it’s even harder to do it in environmentally friendly ways. But if you find yourself feeling inexplicably irate all the time during the warmer months — as I do so often myself — it’s worth examining why that is. We might be feeling icky, but that’s no excuse for treating other people badly. Or even indifferently. We’re all in his together, after all — so we may as well try to help each other out as much as we can.