As the temperature rises in the summer, you may find your inner stock of empathy — and willingness to help others — dwindle down to nothing.
And you’re not the only one. High heat leads to a population-wide disintegration of empathic feelings, or “prosocial behavior,” according to a study from researchers at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., and Northwestern in Evanston, Ill.
In a three-part study assessing a range of conditions and study participants, the researchers discovered that heat and helpfulness go hand-in-hand — often to detrimental effect.
“The point of our study is that ambient temperature affects individual states that shape emotional and behavioral reactions, so people help less in an uncomfortable environment, whatever the reason they come up with to justify why they cannot do,” study author Liuba Belkin, associate professor of Management at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., told Quartz.
In the first part of the study, the researchers analyzed data from a large retail chain in Russia to see how the temperature affected interactions between store employees and customers. When employees worked in “an uncomfortably hot environment” they showed a 50 percent reduction in prosocial behavior compared to a control group.
The researchers found that employees working in the heat were less likely to actively volunteer to assist customers, listen to customers and share suggestions with their customers.
The new study’s investigation of social behavior focuses primarily on interactions that can help society as a whole, note the researchers.
“We adapt the term ‘prosocial behaviors’ to refer to discretionary other-oriented assisting behaviors for which individuals are not necessarily explicitly rewarded, but which are beneficial to other individuals, organizations, or society.”
The second part of the study suggests that the mere thought of high heat thwarts a person’s willingness to lend a helping hand.
“In part two of the study – a randomized online experiment – we asked [a] paid online panel to just recall or imagine situations where they were uncomfortably hot and then, after measuring their feelings and perceptions and a number of survey questions, asked them to help with another survey for free,” said Belkin.
Just more than one-third, or 34 percent, of study participants who were prompted to think of a time of uncomfortably high heat were willing to assist with another survey. That compares to the majority, or 76 percent, of participants in a control group who said they would be open to helping.
“Participants weren’t even experiencing heat at the moment – and we still found that, compared to the control group, the participants were more fatigued, which reduced their positive affect and, ultimately, prosocial behavior,” said Belkin.
The third part of the study found a high degree of difference between the willingness of students to assist others. The researchers placed two groups of students in different rooms — one was “uncomfortably warm” and the other was air-conditioned. When asked to complete a survey “for a non-profit organization that serves children and underprivileged individuals,” nearly all students (95 percent) in the cooler room opted to do so. In the warm room, just 64 percent agreed.
The researchers found that even those who agreed to help in the warm room answered significantly fewer questions than their cooler counterparts.
“Specifically, we find that heat increases fatigue that leads to reduction in positive affect and subsequently reduces individual helping,” report the study authors in the European Journal of Social Psychology.
Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.