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Why Does the Heat Make Us So Cranky?

It all goes back to the caveman days

Heat sucks.

Not only is it sticky, sweaty and uncomfortable, but heat sucks so much that studies have linked it to increased stress and paranoid thoughts, not to mention violent crimes including assault, rioting, spousal abuse and even murder.

Iowa State University psychology professor Craig A. Anderson explains that, due to the discomfort that comes with heat, people tend to perceive minor infractions as major ones, and as a result, they overreact. Then, since the person who they overreacted to is likely hot as well, they respond in kind — it escalates, and an argument ensues. One of Anderson’s papers points to the fact that many summertime disputes have “ambiguous provocation,” meaning that oftentimes, the two people arguing have no idea why they started fighting to begin with.

As an example: Say you’re driving with your spouse on a hot summer day and your car’s air conditioner is fucked up. As you drive along, your partner may point out a stop sign that you nearly missed. Instead of seeing this as simply a helpful observation, you perceive this as them telling you that you don’t know how to drive, that you suck at driving altogether, and Christ, Brian, can’t you fucking do anything right? You respond by lashing out at them, and because they too are heat-crazed, they yell back at you. Meanwhile, you’re still stopped at that Goddamn stop sign screaming at each other while other cars drive around you.

Why does this happen only during the summer, though? After all, being cold is uncomfortable too, so why doesn’t it seem to have the same rage-inducing effect on us? The answer dates back to the earliest human evolution.

Anderson explains, “Under some conditions, cold discomfort does seem to increase irritability and aggressive behavior,” but usually, we’re able to escape the cold by either leaving the cold place or putting more clothes on. In other words, when we get cold, our sole priority is to get warm as quickly as possible. “From an evolutionary perspective, it was probably more important to escape cold temperatures than hot temperatures,” says Anderson. Due to the quick and deadly dangers of frostbite and hypothermia, as soon as we feel cold, our dominant motivation is to deal with that, rather than arguing about stupid shit.

As for heat, while it can come with its own dangers, they tend not to be quite as immediate. We’re also more likely to try to “put up” with the heat more than the cold — after all, during a summer barbecue or a trip to the beach, the whole idea is to relax outdoors in the blazing sun. And so, that irritability and paranoia we experience is likely to creep up on us — because of that, we allow the “heat-irritability-aggression sequence to play out,” explains Anderson.

So there you have it: Because being hot is less deadly than being cold, it ends up being more annoying. Almost as annoying as someone telling you how to drive…