Imagine you are on vacation and find yourself running low on a few necessities. You stop by a small convenience store to stock up and are immediately faced with the usual suspects: cramped aisles lined with chips and candy, a “beer cave” in the back, an oddly placed rack of discount t-shirts…and a lottery showcase behind the counter—a veritable gambler’s paradise. Normally you wouldn’t play; today, however, you’re overcome by the urge to try your luck. But what game do you choose? Do you select among the dozen or so varieties of scratch tickets? Or do you opt for the classic pick-6 lotto?
Your decision may depend on whether you’re vacationing in Juneau, Alaska or Jupiter, Florida—and it all comes down to temperature. Recent research suggests that warm weather impairs our ability to make complex decisions—and even causes us to shy away from making these decisions in the first place.
In the sweltering heat of a Florida summer, choosing between dozens of scratch tickets may seem like an insurmountable task—and one you’d rather not make, given the alternative of a relatively simple pick-6 lotto (just grab a ticket, write down a few numbers, and you’re done). In the cooler climes of Alaska, on the other hand, your ability to make complex decisions—such as choosing your favorite scratch ticket—should be unaffected. These differences may have profound effects on your path to instant fortune. In cooler weather, you are able to weigh your options and choose the best one, no matter how cognitively complex the decision may be; in warmer weather, however, you’re more likely to take the easiest available route—in this case, the pick-6 lotto (which, in Florida, has an approximately 1 in 22,957,480 chance of winning the jackpot).
Although the idea that our decisions are swayed by the temperature of our surroundings may seem far-fetched, consider one simple fact: our brains are organs. And, just like all other organs, these decision-making centers need energy to function. Almost everything we do—whether it is a physical behavior or a mental process—uses the same energy source: glucose. We use glucose as we walk, talk, breathe, and perform other physical functions in our daily lives. We also use glucose when we perform effortful mental functions, such as making decisions, exerting self-control, suppressing emotional responses, and even answering math problems. Crucially, glucose—this fundamental source of both physical and mental energy—is a limited resource.
One of the body’s most important tasks is temperature regulation. When the ambient temperature is unusually hot (Florida) or unusually cold (Alaska), we must use energy—in the form of glucose—to maintain a healthy internal temperature; we shiver and sweat, seeking to avoid hypothermia and heat stroke. These two processes—correcting for excessive heat and unwanted cold—are not equally taxing, however; cooling the body down seems to require more energy than warming it up.
Warm temperatures, then, are more likely to deplete our resources—as our bodies work to maintain homeostasis, we use up large amounts of glucose. Because glucose is also used for mental processes, it may be that the physical demands imposed by excessive warmth reduce our capacity for cognitive functioning, thereby adversely affecting our decision-making abilities.