Hotter days breed hotter tempers


Amudalat Ajasa

THE WASHINGTON POST — As temperatures rise around the world, scientists have documented wide-ranging environmental impacts — rising sea levels, drought and famine, severe flooding, and the disappearance of species.

However, some researchers are increasingly concerned that higher temperatures could also contribute to people behaving badly.

Two recent studies complement the idea by showing that when things heat up, people are more prone to hate speech and hostile behavior.

A study found that hate speech on social media escalated with high temperatures. Another reported an increase in workplace harassment and discrimination at the United States (US) Postal Service when the temperature topped 90 degrees.

Together, the studies contribute to a growing literature linking heat to aggressive behavior. It is well known how social media can bring bad behavior to light.

Heat fuels the flames further.

Climate activists in New York. PHOTO: AFP

Researchers at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research found hate speech on Twitter increased by up to 22 percent in temperatures above 107 degrees Fahrenheit.

They also found that abusive tweets were more common in extreme cold, with a 12.5 percent increase in temperatures below 27 degrees Fahrenheit.

To determine the relationship between hate speech and temperature, researchers used a machine learning algorithm to analyze 75 million hate tweets from a database of over four billion tweets posted by people in the United States between 2014 and 2020.

The tweets covered 773 cities.

Researchers drew on the United Nations (UN) strategy and plan of action’s definition of hate speech: any type of oral, written, or behavioral communication that attacks or uses derogatory or discriminatory language in relation to an individual or group based on who they are – in other words, based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, color, ancestry, or gender or other identity factor.

Aggressive behavior was tamest between 54 and 70 degrees, according to the peer-reviewed study published in the journal Lancet Planetary Health.

While the researchers found that the “window of well-being” varied by climate zone, temperatures above 81 degrees were consistently associated with a significant increase in online hate across all climate zones.

“This shows . . . The limits of our ability to adapt to extreme temperatures,” says co-author of the study Leonie Wenz, who also does research at the Potsdam Institute.

As summers get warmer and heatwaves increase, researchers fear online hate will increase.

According to NASA and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, the summer of 2022 was among the hottest summers in the world on record.

“I think that as living in a climate-affected world increases our stress and precariousness, we’re going to see an increase in aggression online as well,” said University of Michigan associate professor Libby Hemphill, who studies hate speech and social media Media examined and was not involved in the study.

Hemphill said hate speech and other forms of aggression increase whenever people feel “threatened,” which can lead people to make “bad decisions.”

“It makes sense to me that the climate threat would have the same impact or a similar impact on all these other types of threats that stress people out and make them lash out,” she said.

From the sweltering temperatures of the Southwest to the stifling humidity of the Southeast, postal workers have to do their jobs in challenging conditions that are made worse as heat waves become longer, more frequent and more intense.

In recent years, postal workers have quit because of sweltering temperatures in facilities without air conditioning and complained of unbearable working conditions.

A 2019 report by the Center for Public Integrity said the Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited the Postal Service for putting “approximately 900 employees across the country at risk of heat-related illness and death,” dated 2012.

Legislators have held hearings on the issue and introduced legislation to address the issues. Working in such sweltering, hazardous conditions has exposed some workers to a hostile work environment.

The peer-reviewed study, published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, found workers faced increased workplace harassment and discrimination from managers and supervisors on days over 30 degrees.

The study, by Harvard University graduate student Ayushi Narayan, examined over 800,000 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission counts filed by postal workers between 2004 and 2019.

The report found that such incidents increased by about five percent on days above 90 degrees compared to days with temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees.

The complaints spread to more than 12,000 post offices across the country.

“I find that incidents increase when temperatures are high,” Narayan said. “Reducing environmental exposure to extreme heat, either through climate policies or various adaptations, could reduce the level of discrimination against workers.”

The Postal Service did not immediately respond to questions about the study, and the American Postal Workers Union declined to comment.

Heat as an aggravator is not a new concept. For years, psychologists and social scientists have documented the connection between high temperatures, aggressive motivation and behavior and crime.

Some researchers point out that the human body produces adrenaline in response to excessive heat, which can cause aggression as a side effect. Some point to high temperatures increasing heart rate, testosterone, and other metabolic reactions that trigger “fight-or-flight” responses.

Iowa State University psychology professor Craig Anderson, who has studied the relationship between violence and heat since 1979, has written that climate change will directly increase human aggression and violence through what he calls the “heat effect.”

The effect suggests that when people become uncomfortably hot, they become more irritable, think more aggressively, perceive other actions as hostile, and behave more violently.

“In fact, as global warming increases, there will already be an increase in the frequency with which people are uncomfortably warm or uncomfortably hot,” Anderson said.

“That alone can lead to more aggressive decisions and behaviors, and potentially an increase in violent behavior.”

Other field studies Anderson reviewed found that homicides, aggravated assaults, police calls, domestic violence, and other violent behaviors increase with warmer temperatures.

Experts agree that slowing climate change could keep heat-related behavior in check.


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