Climate sways emotions, study finds

February 28, 1996|By Alison Bass | Alison Bass,The Boston Globe

Judy Anechiarico Martin, an outgoing Italian-American, cannot talk without waving her hands. Her husband, Dan, whose ancestry is Scottish, English and German, is so low-key he barely moves his facial muscles when he answers.

So Ms. Martin was hardly surprised to hear of a new international study confirming an old stereotype: that people from warmer climes are more open and emotionally expressive than folks from the colder latitudes.

"The more I think about it, the more it fits," said Ms. Martin, 37, who lives in Downington, Pa. "My husband comes from Buffalo, and it's so cold up there."

The notion that climate affects people's personalities and social interactions has been around for centuries, says James W. Pennebaker, a Texas psychologist, but until now no one has actually tested the hypothesis. He did, and his report appears in the current issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Mr. Pennebaker notes that Montesquieu, the French philosopher, argued in 1748 that warmer climates made individuals more sensitive to emotions, while cold weather made them more dispassionate.

Montesquieu was right

Two-and-a-half centuries later, the survey by Mr. Pennebaker and his colleagues backs up Montesquieu.

"In warmer climates, people are more likely to see, hear and interact with neighbors year-round," they write. In such settings, "emotional expressiveness would be more of a social requirement."

Mr. Pennebaker first recognized the power of climate over behavior when he went to England for a semester abroad.

"I arrived there in the middle of winter and there was no heat in my room, and I remember thinking, 'This changes everything,'" says Mr. Pennebaker, who grew up in Texas. "You have to get out of bed very quickly and get going. You can't loll around and laugh too much because it's too damn cold."

Once back in Texas, however, Mr. Pennebaker didn't test his observation until years later, when he found himself sitting next to a Belgian researcher at a lecture in Spain.

"The Spanish guy made some remark about the difference in emotional expressiveness between northern and southern Spaniards," recalled Mr. Pennebaker, now a professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

"And the Belgian guy and I

turned to each other and said, 'Yeah, there's a similar bias in the United States and Belgium.' "

But was there any truth to that impression?

To find out, Mr. Pennebaker and colleagues, including the Belgian scientist, conducted a survey of 2,963 students from 26 countries, asking them not only to rate themselves on a scale of emotional expressiveness but to rate people in the warmer and colder parts of their countries and hemispheres on the same scale.

The researchers also analyzed the average temperatures for selected cities in the northern and southern regions of the countries they studied.

Three discoveries

They made three interesting discoveries:

1) The stereotype about differences between people who live in colder and warmer regions is very much alive -- it is, in fact, stronger than the reality.

2) The people in warmer regions do indeed rate themselves as more emotionally expressive than people in the colder regions of their own country and other countries.

3) The higher the temperature, the higher the levels of self-reported expressiveness.

Mr. Pennebaker and his colleagues note that "people living in cold climates devote more time to dressing, to providing warmth and to planning ahead for food provisions during the winter months." In warmer climates, life is easier and contact with neighbors more frequent, making it advantageous "to maintain a social understanding of others."

The researchers, however, found these differences in behavior to be far stronger in Europe and Asia than in the United States, probably because there is far more internal migration here.

Mr. Pennebaker is also quick to point out that climate is only one of many factors that determine personality and style of expression: Genetics, family and culture of origin play as big a role (though culture, of course, is influenced by climate).

And gender plays an even larger role.

"Whether you're male or female is a much more powerful predictor of emotional expressiveness than temperature," Mr. Pennebaker notes. "Throughout our study, the women on average were more emotionally expressive than the men."

These findings might explain why women from Mediterranean regions, who were the most expressive, according to this study, have a hard time getting along with men from northern climates, who would be the least expressive. Asier Alea, a young man from Spain who attends Boston University, says that "most Italian and Spanish girls at BU end up dating Europeans or South Americans, but not North American boys."

Mr. Alea, 23, a senior in economics and international relations, says American males "are not very open, they don't express their feelings as much as men from Mediterranean countries do. We may be a little more sexist, but we are not so scared of showing our feminine side."

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