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Heat Wave Temperatures Make It Tougher to Do the Right Thing

Uncomfortably hot temperatures can reduce prosocial behaviors, research shows.

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Record-breaking temperatures across parts of the United States are a reminder that summer is officially here. According to a new study, along with the happy-go-lucky aspects of summer comes the potential for sweltering temperatures to reduce prosocial behavior and make people less helpful to others. A three-part study on the subject, "Exploring the Impact of Ambient Temperature on Helping," was recently published in the European Journal of Social Psychology.

For this study, Liuba Belkin of Lehigh University's College of Business and Economics and Maryam Kouchaki of Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management set out to deconstruct the various mechanisms that influence prosocial behaviors when the climate becomes physically uncomfortable.

The first part of their study found that when it was uncomfortably hot, retail workers at a chain store were 50 percent less likely to engage in prosocial behavior such as volunteering to help customers, listening actively, and making suggestions. From an employer and management standpoint, this is an obvious reminder that maintaining a physically comfortable climate creates a win-win for both workers and shoppers.

In another part of the study, Belkin and Kouchaki divided students in a college management course into two groups: One was placed in a hot and humid classroom, the other in a cool and airy classroom. Then the researchers asked the students to answer a series of questions and fill out a survey for a non-profit organization that serves children and underprivileged individuals in the local community. Notably, only 64 percent of participants in the hotter room agreed to answer at least one question compared to 95 percent in the cooler room. The researchers concluded that the heat and humidity affected the perceptions, emotions, and behavior of a majority of participants.

Yogi Berra once quipped, "It's not the heat, it's the humility." We all know from life experience that being overheated or trapped in a stuffy environment is likely to make someone irritable, cranky, and more likely to snap. Of course, it doesn't necessarily take a clinical study to illuminate that uncomfortable ambient temperatures can create an oppressive environment that causes people to have a shorter fuse.

That being said, one of the benefits of having empirical evidence supporting anecdotal observations—such as the correlation between higher temperatures and lower prosocial behaviors—is that it puts this aspect of our human nature in the spotlight. Knowing that we are hardwired to be less helpful to others when it's uncomfortably hot is a reminder to stay cognizant of how ambient temperatures might be overriding your proclivity to do the right thing when you feel the heat. (This type of emotion regulation may become increasingly important as climate change continues to raise the Earth's temperature and heat waves become more common.)

The legendary 1977 heat wave during the "Summer of Sam" in New York City is a perfect example of how suffocatingly hot air temperatures can create a perfect storm that reduces prosocial behaviors. During this extreme weather, some New Yorkers seemed to reach a boiling point and go berserk, while others stepped in and became good Samaritans. The recent PBS documentary Blackout reexamines how the double whammy of a heat wave and a massive power outage influenced the collective consciousness of people throughout the five boroughs.

In recent days, large swaths of the United States experienced record-breaking temperatures. On June 20, the National Weather Service reported that San Diego County experienced its highest-ever recorded temperature. The heat wave has been so severe that electricity use maxed out and some flights were grounded due to temperatures above 120, which makes it impossible for smaller aircraft to get enough lift for take-off.

Using common sense and taking precautions to keep your core temperature cool is your best defense against the risk of heat stroke and the psychological toll of uncomfortable ambient temperatures. If you do get stuck in an uncomfortably hot environment, taking a few slow, deep diaphragmatic breaths with a long exhale is always going to be the quickest way to engage the "tending-and-befriending" mechanisms of your parasympathetic vagus system. Diaphragmatic breathing is a fast and easy way to improve vagal tone (VT) and increase prosocial behaviors just about anytime and anywhere.

Courtesy of Kiehl's Since 1851
Christopher Bergland running 135-miles through Death Valley in July.
Source: Courtesy of Kiehl's Since 1851

Additionally, listening to favorite summer songs that romanticize the ambient heat (such as the Bruce Springsteen playlist I'm listening to right now, which includes "The Promised Land," "Racing in the Street," and "4th of July, Asbury Park") can make a heat wave seem more like an invigorating and exotic adventure than a disagreeable sufferfest. This "Bring it on!" explanatory style is a trick I learned by running the Badwater Ultramarathon through Death Valley: Summer anthems can produce positive emotional valence and are a valuable tool for staying cool-headed, upbeat, and equanimous anytime you find yourself in mind-boggling hot weather.

Hopefully, the latest findings by Belkin and Kouchaki can serve as a clarion call for all of us to remain vigilant about reducing our carbon footprint while staying psychologically even-keeled and sustaining prosocial behavior—especially when excessive heat creates a pressure cooker effect that can short-circuit reasoning.


Belkin, L. Y., and Kouchaki, M. (2017) Exploring the impact of ambient temperature on helping. Eur. J. Soc. Psychol., doi: 10.1002/ejsp.2242.

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