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.
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.