Too Hot to Help

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Volume 14, Number 2

“Conservation of Resources” (COR) is a model of stress developed by Stevan Hobfoll, PhD, currently of Rush Medical College in Chicago. The essence of the model is that persons seek to acquire and maintain resources (cognitive, emotional, social, physical, etc.) and that stress occurs when there is either a loss of resources or perceived threat of loss. In daily life, demands in many domains require the expenditure of energy and other resources, such that a person becomes fatigued as resources become depleted. Helping others (i.e., pro-social behavior) requires energy (i.e., resources). From this perspective, helping behavior is more likely when resources are perceived to be plentiful than when one is trying to conserve resources because of threatened depletion.

The COR model of stress led Dr. Liuba Belkin of Lehigh University and Dr. Maryam Kouchaki of Northwestern University to hypothesize that coping with environmental stressors, specifically uncomfortably hot temperatures, would decrease persons’ willingness to help others. They published results of three studies last year in the European Journal of Social Psychology.

Their first study found that sales persons were less helpful to customers during a heat wave (temperature in the 98°-100° F range and no air conditioning) than during a period with more moderate temperatures (70°-73° F). In their second study, research participants were asked to recall and then write about a time when they were uncomfortably hot. Control group participants simply thought about and wrote about the previous days’ activities. Those in the “hot” recall condition subsequently were less willing to be helpful when given such an opportunity. Their third study compared helping behavior in a classroom at 80° F and one at 69° F. Significantly less helping occurred in the hotter classroom. The investigators also found in studies two and three that participants reported feeling more fatigued in the “hot” conditions — even though the “hot” condition in study two simply involved thinking and writing about a time of being uncomfortably hot (rather than actually being in a hotter environment at the time of the study).

Drs. Belkin and Kouchaki conclude that coping with heat is a stressor that requires the expenditure of resources, thereby increasing fatigue (or perceived fatigue in the recall study), decreasing positive emotion, and hence reducing prosocial behavior. Other research has found a link between hot weather and aggression. Furthermore, other studies report evidence that uncomfortably cold weather is associated with less helping behavior as well, possibly also because of a “depletion of resources.”

These study results are likely not surprising to readers, as complaints about extremes in temperature are common and suggest that such environments are experienced as stressful. Given the importance of helping behavior in the workplace and other settings in society, maintaining comfortable ambient temperatures where possible can impact human interaction in a positive direction.


Paul J. Hershberger, Ph.D.

… is a clinical health psychologist. He is Professor and Director of the Division of Behavioral Health, Department of Family Medicine, Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine.




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