There’s actually a good reason to be grumpy in the summer

“No, I cant help you.”
“No, I cant help you.”
Image: Reuters/Toshiyuki Aizawa
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Think back to an occasion when you were forced to work, or do anything constructive or collaborative, in excessive heat. Chances are you probably weren’t your best, most other-oriented, generous-of-spirit self.

Psychologists have proposed that an uncomfortably warm environment makes people less helpful and friendly—or, in psychological terms, less prosocial—but the link has never been tested. Much research has instead focused on excessive heat as a factor in antisocial, aggressive, or deviant behavior. Now, a study from a management professor at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, seems to have established that elevated ambient temperatures do reduce prosocial behaviors, and may explain why, too.

Lehigh’s Liuba Belkin, who specializes in organizational behavior and emotions at work, led the three-part study, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology. Belkin and her co-author Maryam Kouchaki, an assistant professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in Evanston, Illinois, analyzed archival data from a Russian retail chain that sells leather handbags and travel goods, comparing reports from secret shopper visits to Moscow outlets in July and August of 2011, a typical Moscow summer, to those in 2010, when the city was slogging through an unprecedented “mega-heatwave.”

Although it has since become more common for Moscow’s malls to have air conditioning, that was less true in 2010, and that summer, the secret shoppers’ data indicated a significant drop in helpfulness on behalf of the clerks. They were 59% less likely to do things like volunteer to help customers, ask if there was something specific someone was looking for, listen actively, and make suggestions.

Excessive heat hurts customer service

The secret shoppers, who had been evaluating customer service each year since 2008, didn’t notice a significant decline in the store’s cleanliness or physical environment, nor had the chain offered retail clerks additional customer service training during the 2011 season. While other factors may have accounted for the difference in attitudes among clerks, Belkin believes excessive heat was the main reason clerks stopped being as helpful.  “To our knowledge, this was the first study to establish the connection between ambient temperature and a reduction of prosocial behavior with data,” Belkin tells Quartz.

Next the researchers tried to isolate the mechanism that makes people less helpful when they feel overheated. In a randomized experiment, they recruited 160 paid subjects online (all US citizens), ostensibly for a study about recall and problem solving. They asked half of the recruits to close their eyes and recall a time when they were in an extremely warm environment, then respond to survey questions about their mood and energy levels before answering trivia questions. The trivia quiz was actually a way to disguise the real focus of the study. When they thought their work was done, the recruits were asked to fill out an extra survey, as a courtesy, as a final task. The control group followed the same protocol, but were not primed to feel warm first.

Fewer members of the first group—who were thinking about feeling overheated— agreed to the optional survey compared to those in the control condition (44% compared to 77%.) They also reported higher levels of fatigue and lower moods.

Belkin and Kouchaki concluded that just thinking about being warm led subjects to feel more fatigued, which put them in less-than-cheerful moods. Elevated moods tend to drive social, friendly behavior, Belkin said.

Too cold is better than too hot

Finally, Belkin chose students in two sections of a college management course (a total of 73 college students) as subjects for a field experiment. In the first class, students listened to a morning lecture sitting in a room that was 26.7 degrees Celsius (80 degrees Fahrenheit.) Before the class ended, they were asked to answer some questions, then to fill out a 100-question survey. They were told that the survey was on behalf of a non-profit organization for underprivileged kids.

The same steps were repeated in the second class, which was held in a comfortable, air conditioned room.

Hot room participants answered an average of six questions, compared to 35 in the air conditioned room. Some 65% of students answered only a single question in the hotter room, whereas 95% of participants did in the cooler room.

Some of those students probably wanted to leave and escape the stickier room, says Belkin, “but whatever the reason, it affected their behavior.” Fatigue appeared to play a role, as those who reported more fatigue also answered fewer questions. “The point of our study is that ambient temperature affects individual states that shape emotional and behavioral reactions,” the professor tells Quartz, “so people help less in an uncomfortable environment, whatever the reason they come up with to justify why they cannot do” something.

This idea jibes with the so-called “conservation of resources theory,” which says that people accumulate and protect resources, not only food and shelter, but also financial means or relationships, for instance, throughout life, and will compensate for a real or perceived loss when one asset is under pressure.

Would they have seen the same results if one of the lecture halls had been downright cold? It’s possible, says Belkin. However, she adds, research from a 2012 lab experiment shows people were more customer-oriented when they were working in comfortably cold, but not comfortably warm, temperatures. The authors of that study speculated that in colder temperatures, people look for opportunities to form social connections as a way to feel literally warmer.

When the ambient temperature is too balmy, says Belkin, managers ought to look for interventions that will boost morale and well-being, since higher spirits can act as a buffer against the otherwise inevitable loss of interest in helping others.

If you choose not to acknowledge the heat, or other environmental and emotional stressors, employees will feel unsupported, and in time, the best will leave as soon as the opportunity arises, she asserts. “We know that money matters,” she says, “but only to a point.”