Extreme Heat and Distorting Human Behavior

With the world entering a brand new era full of temperature swings and extreme heat waves, human nature is left in internal chaos. Scientists have long studied the correlation between our mental and physical health and weather conditions. But what used to be a mere seasonal problem is now shaping to be a new addition to the list of the harmful consequences of global warming. New reports are linking extreme heat to a spike in aggression, low cognitive ability, and lost productivity.

A growing problem

According to various reports, the human mental state cannot withstand a temperature higher than around 35° Celsius, or about 95° Fahrenheit. Thus, when people are forced to endure such conditions, their performance, along with their overall coping mechanisms, suffer greatly. 

With scientists estimating the increase in record-breaking heatwaves and temperatures, this psychological link will prove to be a very severe, growing problem. Yet, even if the problem is universal, the already mentally and physically overwhelmed third-world population is bound to suffer most of the catastrophe.“The physiological effects of heat may be universal, but the way it manifests is highly unequal,” says the economist, R. Jisung Park of UCLA. 

Moreover, the American Psychiatric Association states that extreme heat waves can cause an increase in depression, the incidence of domestic violence, as well as suicides.

A surge in aggression

Heat invokes irritation and uncomfortableness. To test this theory, social psychologist Craig Anderson and his team conducted a procedure in a controlled environment several years ago. They showed a group of students four video clips of couples having a dialog.  Though one clip was neutral in tone, the rest showed escalating tension during the conversation. However, the results of students tested in a high-temperature environment marked the level of hostility between the couples a lot higher than those tested in a neutral environment. “[Because of heat, people] tend to just perceive things as being more nasty when they’re hot than when they’re comfortable,” concluded Anderson. 

Take prisons as another proof. While studying Mississippi prisons and jails lacking air conditioning, a National Bureau of Economic Research discovered that the probability of violence among inmates rose by 18 percent on days with temperatures higher than 27° C.

Further, this kind of aggression is not only limited to the inside of prison walls. If we study the data from May to September during 2010 to 2017, in Los Angeles, we will find that violent crime rose by 5.5 percent on days with temperatures from about 24° C to 32° C. 

Low performance, heat, and inequity

On the other hand, extreme heat also affects all levels of productivity and concentration. Take for example solving exams in hot school buildings. Between the irritation, the discomfort, and the overall short-tempers, students often achieve worse results when they take an exam in hot environments. According to the Journal of Human Resources, students who take the exam on an approximately 32° C day are 10 percent less likely to pass than those taking it on a  24° C day. 

Thus, even extreme heat has been indirectly fueling inequity. According to the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy report, students in schools without air conditioning usually score lower than estimated during hot days. Therefore, since Black and Hispanic students are less likely to attend school with conditioning, their performance is often lower than their white counterparts. Experts are now attributing these temperature differences to the 3 to 7 percent of the PSAT’s racial achievement gap.

Worsening mental health

“While many people are still coping with mental health challenges from the pandemic, exposure to extreme, even unprecedented, heat, can worsen psychiatric symptoms,” said APA President Vivian Pender, M.D. “APA believes the impacts of climate change, such as these extreme heatwaves, pose a threat to public health, including mental health.”

Not taking into account the impending sense of doom side of global warming, the heatwaves are enough to worsen the state of pre-existing mental health conditions. Some medications, including antidepressants and antipsychotics, can alter the way body regulates temperature. Furthermore, sleep difficulties associated with extreme heat can play a huge role in further exacerbating mental health symptoms. The heat also causes high-risk coping behavior, such as high alcohol consumption and the abuse of other substances.

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