The Psychology Of Extreme Weather

The African Savanna at the Phoenix Zoo hosts a diverse array of noble and majestic wildlife. It's also hotter than a frying pan in the dead of summer.
Nick Blumberg
By Nick Blumberg
August 15, 2012

Photo by Tracy Greer
Reporter Nick Blumberg recorded part of his story outside on a 115-degree day in Arizona to prove a point.

PHOENIX -- There are a lot of great things about living in Phoenix. Standing outside, the sky is a brilliant blue. Off in the distance, I can see beautiful mountains.

I'm also covered in sweat.

The summer weather here is awful. But that's hardly news; pretty much everyone knows that. So why does it seem like we talk about the hot temperatures ad nauseum?

Of course, it's a form of small talk. But does it go deeper than that? Dr. Alan Stewart studies the psychology of weather and climate at the University of Georgia. He told me talking helps us process our feelings and concerns about the weather.

"To have some commonality, or to feel like [we're] not alone in facing the severe weather or the extremes of the temperatures and that sort of thing," Stewart said. "So, it kind of is a coping mechanism."

And the climate you're used to determines what weather you need to cope with. Stewart told me about a huge winter storm in 2010 that completely shut down his university, in Athens, Ga., but said, "what we thought was very cold would probably not cause people in Chicago to alter their routine very much, because Chicago is such a cold place in the winter."

Photo courtesy of the Blumberg family
Art and Madeline Blumberg are Nick's parents, and have little patience for people who whine about the weather.

So are Chicagoans stoic, or are do they have to talk through the cold like we do the heat? As it happens, I know a couple people in Chicago very well: my parents.

"Pops, what do you think?" I asked.

"People, I think, are bigger babies about the cold," my dad said.

So how does HE respond to cold weather?

"What I do is tell people, 'Oh, I like the cold. I like winter.' And that is a HUGE conversation stopper. Folks look at me like, 'Oh, God...' and they starting edging away a little bit," he said.

The funny thing is, there are some people here in Phoenix who say the same thing about the heat. I asked my mom what she thinks.

"You're always going to run into some people that are not happy unless they have something to complain about," she said.

But when it's five below -- or 115 -- we might need to let off a little steam. Dr. Doug Kenrick is a psychologist at Arizona State University who has looked at the relationship between heat and aggression.

He did a study where a researcher drove up to an intersection in Phoenix and didn't move when the light turned green. They timed how long it took other drivers to start honking. The study found -- surprise, surprise -- people were quicker to honk in the summer, and they honked at the researcher more aggressively.

Photo courtesy of Doug Kenrick
Dr. Doug Kenrick is an evolutionary and social psychologist at Arizona State University.

"She got these hand signals, the kind that you don't learn in driver's ed," Kenrick said. "One guy chased her into a parking lot and she had to explain herself, which fortunately happened before any violence occurred."

But Kenrick said heat-related violence is a real danger.

"Horn honking doesn't seem like a major act of aggression, but other researchers have looked at serious crimes. What they find is that as the temperatures rises, assaults and homicides tend to go up."

Kenrick said we can temper summer aggression by remembering that everyone else is just as hot as we are, and by staying out of the heat as much as possible.

But what if you have to be outside? I talked to some people who have a really cool job. As in, it's awesome; except the part about spending 9 or 10 hours a day in the sun.

Michelle Hatwood is one of the keepers at the Phoenix Zoo who looks after giraffes, vultures, and African cattle on their four acre Savanna. Standing out on the Savanna on a recent morning, Hatwood looks down at her thermometer and notices that it's almost 100 degrees at 8 a.m.

Hatwood said the zookeepers talk about the weather a lot, "...making sure everyone's drinking water, if anyone feels a little bit dizzy, or overheated during the day, we do communicate with about that so we can keep an eye on each other."

More In This Series

How does the Southwest cope with oppressive heat?

Photo by Nick Blumberg
Zookeepers Laura Schrader, Courtney Wilson, and Michelle Hatwood care for hoofstock (like the Watusi cattle behind them) at the Phoenix Zoo.

But it's not always purely humanitarian. "When I'm sick, [it] makes me feel better [to] complain to my husband about it, and I tell him, 'I feel horrible, I feel sick!'" Hatwood said. "Having him know that makes me feel better! I think the heat is very similar. Just that other people know that you feel miserable."

And Stewart from Georgia said sharing that weather-related misery can serve a purpose.

"Talking about and sharing experiences is one way that we get an idea, you know, is our reaction within bounds, or are we sort of unique in the way we’re experiencing the heat, or any kind of weather for that matter," Stewart said.

So all those weather conversations in the heat or the cold can be small talk, or a way to cope and commiserate ... and sometimes, it's just the reminder we need that, yeah, it really is awful outside, and I'm not totally crazy.