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Blaming the weather

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Tuesday, Nov 4, 2008

It’s hard to write about anything serious while waiting for the election to be over. My hope is that Obama wins convincingly, the Republican party becomes even more reactionary and Palinesque, and the sensible conservatives form their own third party, so that there can be grownup debate in this country again about issues. It seems like U.S. politics in general, perversely enough, would be well-served by a real far-right party (just like they have in such countries as Austria and Germany and France) where wackos can gather, lodge their petulant protest against reality, and stay out of the arena of meaningful politics. As it is, they are muddling the picture when there is a great deal to do. America needs serious policy debates about the economic intervention and foreign policy, and we can’t afford to waste time with nitwit nationalism, xenophobia, religious bigotry, and race hatred.


Anyway, more of that later, I’m sure. In the meantime, I thought this post from the PsyBlog, about the way weather doesn’t actually affect mood, interesting. The post cites two studies that suggest the correlation between mood and the weather is almost negligible, which raises the far more interesting question of why we believe the weather is so significant.


Denissen et al. (2008) suggest that we may be responding to a culturally transmitted idea that weather affects mood. Effectively we think the weather has significant effects on our mood because everyone else thinks and says it does.
We may also pay a disproportionate amount of attention to a very small number of people who really do have what has become known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). These people report that their moods are very strongly associated with the weather. While it might be assumed that this connection is the same for everyone: winter = sad, summer = happy, the data collected by Denissen et al. (2008) doesn’t support this. Instead it suggests there are just as many people with SAD who become sadder in the summer and cheer up in the winter. But for the vast majority of us there is no effect.


This pattern of mutual social reinforcement probably has something to do with it—a consequence of people ceaselessly and needlessly talking about the weather—though it certainly doesn’t feel this way when we are in a good mood, and we want to ascribe it to something. We want the weather to be for us alone, to reflect our tremendous significance to the world. We never feel so important, perhaps then when our mood and our milieu seem to magically coincide, as if the climate has been specially contrived just for us.


As someone who dislikes sunny days and enjoys a good mist, these findings are reassuring, though perhaps I should be upset that something special and contrarian in me has had its basis in fact threatened. There’s nothing special in being inured to the sun.


It’s probably more convenient to blame the weather rather than what is really causing a down mood, since you can’t expect to do anything about the weather, so you can remain passive, thereby reinforcing one of the primary traits of down moods. Possibly, weather-mood connections are established not in response to actual behavioral changes but ahead of time as a kind of moral imperative—it’s sunny so you should want to go outside and enjoy it. You should feel glad you have this opportunity to get more done in the world. My aversion to sunshine actually has more to do with weather bullies than the sun itself, though the UV rays are no good for me either.

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