It’s not just you: More bad things do happen during the summer. The heat makes us cranky, and studies show that there’s an increase in crime and a decrease in tolerance of others when temperatures top 74 degrees Fahrenheit.
And it’s not just in the United States. The British deal with higher incidences of what they term “antisocial behavior” when it’s hot, too. In June, the Greater Manchester police warned its citizenry to be on the alert, as longer days can bring more examples of “aggressive and destructive activity,” including more “yobbish” (vulgar) behavior and “fly-tipping rubbish” (illegal dumping).
That’s the downside of summer. The upside? The frustration that escapes from our pores with our sweat can sometimes lead to positive long-term change or, at the very least, trigger an event that highlights the need for it. Tiananmen Square is also known as the June Fourth Incident of 1989. Soweto youth revolted in June 1976. France still celebrates the anniversary of its 1830 break with the monarchy each July. Nat Turner led a slave rebellion in August 1831.
And here we are in 2016. High emotions related to police shootings, shootings of police officers and a presidential election campaign like no other have combined with higher-than-average temperatures to create what truly seems to be – to turn Shakespeare and Steinbeck on their heads – the summer of
There was a time when really bad news – like a mass shooting, or a terrorist attack, or a shocking revelation that the good guys weren’t always so good after all – was such an anomaly that it was possible to measure the passage of time by them. There was before and after Rodney King’s beating by police was recorded in 1991; before and after Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot and killed 12 fellow students and a teacher at Columbine High School in 1999; before and after Sept. 11, 2001.
This summer, there’s been barely a pause between violent tragedies in places like Orlando, Baghdad, Somalia and France. Is the heat somehow to blame?
To a certain degree, yes. Craig Anderson, a psychology professor at Iowa State University, calls it the “heat hypothesis.” In 2010, Anderson, who is also director of Iowa State’s Center for the Study of Violence, collaborated on new research showing how global climate change impacts aggression and violence, estimated that an 8-degree rise in the country’s annual average temperature will increase the murder and assault rate by 34 more incidents per 100,000 people. This would be a 14.4 percent increase over 2014 levels, according to FBI data.
“This is a summer with a heat wave, and significant heat problems can influence people physically,” said Frank Farley, a Temple University professor and former president of the American Psychological Association. “Some people get agitated by it or they don’t feel comfortable doing things, like putting on sunscreen, just because of the weather. So it’s a background factor.”
Srinivasan Sitaraman, a professor of political science at Clark University, said we cannot attribute warm weather as a causal factor to protests or an increase in violence, but we can argue that summer facilitates large group organization and mass protests.
“It’s easier to organize when you can come out with shorts and a T-shirt and a bottle of water,” he said.
Combining more organized resistance with a presidential election year could mean even more trouble, Farley said. Negative emotions like anger and aggression are more common when people are uneasy about the potential shift in power or the heated (in a metaphorical sense) rhetoric of the campaigns.
“Elections, especially a big one that will define our society and our foreign and domestic activities for years to come, get people stirred up,” he explained.
Heat also has an effect on our tolerance of others. In a recent research paper, James S. Krueger of the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh and Alexander H. Cohen of Ashford University in California found that average daily temperatures above 74 degrees are associated with preferences for a stricter immigration policy and against permissive affirmative action policies.
Those are two issues that tend to be popular with minority groups and those who aren’t at the top of the income scale. They can feel that pushback, add it to their existing belief that they’re being treated unfairly and conclude that “a confluence of factors have come together at a crucial junction,” Sitaraman said. “There’s real anger and everyone’s feeling repressed and it’s all coming to a boiling point.”
And literally becoming overheated can be a class factor as well. Those who can’t afford climate controls in their homes – “a beautiful, air-conditioned life,” as Farley put it – are more prone to fall victim to the weather than others. Frustration over social standing, income – or, really, anything – can lead to aggressive
behavior, he said.
“I’m glad we haven’t had mass rioting behavior,” Farley acknowledged.
So is there a way to ensure safety during times of elevated temperatures
and tempers? According to Sitaraman, probably not.
“When a fool, a lone wolf, goes on a killing rampage, you really can’t anticipate that,” Sitaraman said. “The number of shootings by people angry at the system has
After the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, Sitaraman said he doesn’t “actively seek out crowded places.” But in a free society, it’s difficult and challenging to do much in terms of preventative measures. Look at events of the last few years. Should one avoid movie theaters? Patriotic fireworks displays? First-grade classrooms?
Farley also warns of the dangers of catastrophizing terrorist incidents.
“Any time there is a loss of life, that’s terrible, but keep it in perspective … Terrorist attacks aren’t nearly close to the top of the list of things that have a chance of hurting you,” he said. “It’s your interpretation of events that’s so important.”
There’s also allowing “emotional contagion” to set in, meaning you’ll refuse to go out at night or fly on an airplane.
“Fear can have an incredibly constricting effect because you don’t live your life,” Farley said. “That ain’t the American story, historically. We tilt towards being risk-takers, pushing the envelope, being change agents. … We don’t want fear of terror or violence to choke that innovation and creativity.”
In light of the uncertainty of the times, Srinivasan and his family have developed a new practice before parting ways.
“Let’s say goodbye to each other, because we don’t know what’s going to happen today,” he said. “Let’s all be thankful when we come back in the evening.” ■
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