Thursday, July 28, 2011

Crazy From The Heat: The Crime-Temperature Connection

Image Credit: Julius Schorzman
In just a few days I’ll be vacating my overpriced studio apartment in Austin’s tree-lined Hyde Park area and moving to the ‘hood (aka, the east, east side). 
In the typical hailstorm of calamity that precedes a move, the house in which I’ll soon be hanging my hat was broken into a week ago and we’re currently in the process of, uh, upgrading security a bit.

And then there’s the weather. The temperatures in Austin have been hitting record highs all summer and are intensifying this week in apparent anticipation of my impending move. We’ve opted to do most of the heavy lifting Saturday evening when the sun should be slightly less blazing. Still, it is guaranteed to suck.

This means two things for you the reader, 1) I don’t have time to write one of my longer, more researched pieces right now and 2) I’m currently obsessed with a the dual waves of heat and crime. So naturally this article in Wired about the possible link between hot weather and violent crime caught my eye.

Anecdotal evidence and much of Spike Lee’s oeuvre seems to bear out a connection between hot days and aggression. I mean, who among us hasn’t thrown a malfunctioning electric fan across the room at some point in their lives? But is there any data supporting such a correlation, or any reason to believe that thing one causes the other?

The Wired article discusses a study conducted by Ellen Cohn and James Rotton, psychologists at Florida State University, examining assault rates over a two-year period in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I’m guessing they were referring to this study, yet for some reason they linked to this other study by the same authors, which deals with property crime during the same period in the same city (also interesting, given my recent break-in issues, but let’s stick with assault for the moment).

Cohn and Rotton reported several noteworthy observations.
1) Assault rates were higher in summer than in winter.
2) Assault rates were higher at night than during the day. (Remember this detail, as it will become important in a minute.)
3) Overall assault rates initially rose with temperature, but as the mercury neared 80F, such crimes leveled off and even decreased.

This last point runs contrary to our expectations that things continue to get worse as heat and heat-related frustrations rise. Perhaps people were just too exhausted from the heat to pick a fight?

But you don’t have accept Cohn and Rotton’s interpretation of their own data, because another group of psychologists – Brad Bushman, Morgan Wang, and Craig Anderson – also had a go at it. They concluded that the original study failed to properly consider time of day. The major issue is that both crime rate and temperature vary with time of day, but in opposite directions. Crime is higher at night, while temperature is higher during the day. So things seem to level off after 80F because it’s usually not that hot in Minneapolis by midnight (excluding July 2011, of course). When focusing on the data specifically between the angry hours of 9pm and 3am, there is no fall off and assault rates continue to rise as the nights get hotter.

And what about that study on property crime, (a reasonable concern for those of us about to relocated our earthly belongings to a part of town where folks kick in doors with some regularity)? Once again weather is a factor (more break-ins in summer, with rates rising according to temperature), but so is time of day (more break-ins at night).

It’s a lot of information to process with July temperatures melting one’s fragile brain. It has also been suggested that weather affects crime rates not as much by pissing people off, but by driving them outdoors in the first place, where they are more likely to encounter each other and the poorly lit back door of your house. It’s too cold for crime in January. Property crimes in particular are often opportunistic, which requires that the individuals committing them venture outside to find said opportunities.

As is often the case, more research on the subject would be needed to understand any psychological causes behind the correlations. For now, a freshly installed metal door will be welcoming me to the neighborhood.

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