Thursday, January 30, 2014

Behaviorial Meteorology: Psychology Behind Our Cold Weather Perceptions


Last year I wrote an article on how our perceptions of the weather are shaped by events that have
occurred most recently. This winter's cold weather is a prime example: The last two winters have
been milder in comparison so we are preconditioned to believe that this winter would not only be
worse (which it is) but one of the worse in years and comparable to the harsh winter of the 1970s and
early 1980s. Both are false.
 
Why do we perceive this winter to be one of the worst ever? Its a classic example of the RECENCY
EFFECT: This is the tendency to think that more recent trends and patterns we observe (which are
more recent in our minds like our recent mild winters) are a very good representation of the
entire period in question. Since the winters of yesteryear are distant memories, we tend to weight
them less than our memories of recent winters. We believe our memories and observations--
recent mild winters--are excellent predictors of what the near future will bring.



How often has someone said to you this past fall "We are due for a bad winter".  Or how about
this: "This winter has to be one of the coldest ever" or "This colder trend recently surely means
that the rest of the spring and summer will be cold?  That is the RECENCY EFFECT at work.
Those frequently uttered sentences above are totally driven by our perceptions.  Our perceptions
make us feel good because they fit our hard-wired biases.  Most of the time, we grossly
underestimate the significance of our biases. The truth is that this winter is ranked...45th coldest! 
The winter pattern rarely has a connection to spring or summer. Hard to believe but its true.

This type of information might run counter to our perceived notions ultimately becoming a source of
frustration and internal conflict.  We have a built in motivation to reduce conflicting ideas by altering the existing conditions in our mind to create consistency. Pick any topic: weather, economics, politics, investing...anything. We all do it. 
In the case of understanding our winter weather or any weather during any season), we do this by 1)  Believing weather information which best fits our preconceived notions 2)  We alter its importance in our mind and/or dismiss the hard, cold facts and data all together or 3) We just plain criticize it. Sometimes, it’s a blend of all three. This inclination to favor information that reinforces our comfort level is called a "Confirmation Bias".  Incidentally, this happens all of the time inside Facebook comment threads.

Watch what happens when the first cold stretch develops in spring. Everyone will be shouting that
"they knew this would happen because of our cold winter." That's classic CONFIRMATION BIAS.
The problem is that as we create "consistency" through favoring our own view of the information,
we create a new false interpretation of the weather which we believe to be true. Rather than
looking objectively at the reasons for the change scientifically (science scares people), most
people tend to use an overly simplified and often inaccurate scientific explanation of the weather
to ultimately confirm their predispositions.

The response "We are due for a bad winter" has virtually no scientific merit.  For events that require object analysis, our own human nature deceives us.  In this case, our biases "cloud"--no pun intended--our judgment of the weather.  By recognizing our own weather biases, we can actively attempt to dampen the effects. As much as it might hurt, trust the data.

7 comments:

Steve Letterle said...

You are right on

Steve Letterle said...

You are right on

Brandon said...

This is good, and I believe it is a reason for the constant push we hear that climate change is the reason for _______ (fill in the blank with any recent weather extreme) and that we can expect worse this and that.

Kathy Bungard said...

How about physiological and not psychological states affected by weather? Here in the northwest with a barometer swinging like a pendulum I've had two migraines in three days.

Pem hutchinson said...

Funny Scott but although I totally understand confirmation bias, at age 55 now I really recall winter being colder in the past in general than now, the opposite of the recency effect. I was something of a denier of AGE/GW but have come around now since the data really seems to reflect much warmer...all the time. Saw a stat that the USA was 7.1F higher than average Jan and Feb...almost 20% above normal for an entire country. Very surprised that people think it's been a really cold winter. I mean how many record cold days have we had this winter zero or one I'd imagine.

Scott Sabol said...

My reason for mentioning confirmation bias is not to Discount anthropogenic global warming at all. My date it is strictly 4 Northern Ohio. Many times our short-term memories Cloud what has happened in reality over a long period of time independent of any climate change element. Always remember to look at the data specific region before drawing conclusion based on perception. Some of the comments here are perception based which exactly what I'm referring to my post.

Scott Sabol said...

My reason for mentioning confirmation bias is not to Discount anthropogenic global warming at all. My date it is strictly 4 Northern Ohio. Many times our short-term memories Cloud what has happened in reality over a long period of time independent of any climate change element. Always remember to look at the data specific region before drawing conclusion based on perception. Some of the comments here are perception based which exactly what I'm referring to my post.