Does Steamy Weather Lead to Hot Tempers?

From the WebMD Archives

July 20, 2000 -- There's road rage, air rage, and even youth sports rage. And now, as a triple-digit heat wave sweeps across the Southeast and Midwest, experts suggest there may also be "heat rage."

So far, the scorching heat has been blamed for the deaths of about 12 Texas residents and possibly five in Louisiana, but heat rage may take even more casualties. For example, domestic violence usually reaches its peak during the summer months, according to the Wichita, Kan., Police Department. Domestic abuse cases typically number about 700 in June, July, or August, and around 500 in February or March, they report.

A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that aggression and violence seem to peak in hot weather. But not when it's too hot: During daytime hours and in the warmer months, when the temperature gets unbearable, people's tempers seem to cool.

"When it gets really hot, people would rather escape the heat than fight," says Paul Bell, PhD, a professor of psychology at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. This pattern was seen in both Dallas and Minneapolis, according to study authors James Rotton, PhD, an associate professor of psychology, and Ellen G. Cohn, PhD, an associate professor of criminal justice, both at Florida International University in Miami. Overall, more aggravated assaults occurred at moderately high temperatures than at either very low or very high temperatures, the new study shows.

To arrive at their findings, the researchers compared temperatures over a two-year period with the more than 18,600 calls to the Dallas Police Department reporting aggravated assaults during that time. The same researchers did a similar study in Minneapolis in 1997.

Heat rage may peak in the evenings because people may drink alcohol rather than water to beat the heat, and "alcohol increases the probability of aggressive behavior," the researchers write.

Arthur Bachrach, PhD, a psychologist in Taos, N.M., spent 18 years studying extreme environments, including underwater, cold, and heat, for the U.S. Navy. "With heat, in particular, there is no way to escape, but you can protect yourself from the cold by wearing warm clothing," Bachrach tells WebMD.

There is no particular temperature that triggers violence, he says. "Irritability is associated with heat, and this is probably what leads to violence and rage," he says.

Crowds and lines may also intensify the situation, he says.

Simple precautions, such as seeking air conditioning, drinking plenty of water, and dressing appropriately, may help reduce cases of heat rage, experts tell WebMD. The best way to protect yourself is to "stay cool and find air conditioning when it gets too hot," Bell says.

"Drink eight 8 oz. glasses of water a day or more in extreme heat, wear light clothing, a porous hat, and avoid crowding if possible," Bachrach says. "Prevention is rather simple."

Vital Information:

  • Intense heat may increase people's irritability and lead to aggression.
  • Alcohol and crowds may exacerbate the effects of heat on temper.
  • You can stay cool by drinking plenty of water and dressing appropriately.