Taken together, these studies suggest that higher ambient temperatures change our patterns of decision-making. As our bodies struggle to maintain a healthy internal temperature, they use up resources that would otherwise be available for mental processes. As a result, we are less able to make complex decisions—we give up early, make mistakes, and even shy away from making these decisions in the first place. We choose the easy option—a standard, one-option lotto game—rather than the complex one—selecting one out of dozens of scratch tickets.
These results do not mean, however, that people in warmer climates are reliably prone to making poorer decisions than those in cooler environments. Human beings are remarkably adaptive; we automatically acclimate to changes in ambient temperature and—given a bit of time—are capable of performing just as well in sweltering heat, frigid cold, and a climate-controlled office. It really does matter that you were on vacation when making your lottery decision; if you had been a native Alaskan or Floridian, the temperature would have made little, if any, difference. This research suggests that what does make a difference is slight deviations in temperature from an expected norm. Even though an unusually warm day in northern Alaska may be 50° cooler than such a day in the middle of Florida, the effect on cognitive processes may be the same.
These slight deviations in temperature are a common part of our lives—the warmth of our homes and offices fluctuate throughout the day, stores and restaurants seem to set their thermostats with little regard for human comfort, and temperatures outdoors vary not just from day to day, but from minute to minute. Each of these minor changes in temperature may have important implications for our ability to make decisions, especially when we are unaware of these effects—but, luckily, now you are aware.
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.