High temperatures make us hotheads: Study finds the weather impacts how we “talk” on Twitter and Facebook
As anyone who has spoken to me during this recent heatwave will attest, weather can have a distinct impact on mood but new research published from the Vancouver School of Economics and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) shows that the effects of weather filters through into how we express ourselves virtually on social media, too.
This is no small-scale study. In all, the researchers collected 2.4 billion Facebook posts and 1.1 billion tweets to analyse their overall sentiment: positive or negative. As a result, the researchers have a good handle on what, on average, people view as “lovely and warm” and “too damned hot.” Positive sentiments increase as the temperature approaches 20 degrees Celsius, and then decline over 30 degrees.
And it’s not just the heat. The researchers also found that precipitation, humidity over 80% and even days with high amounts of cloud cover increased the amount of negative sentiment expressed.
While sentiment analysis is a pretty blunt tool (sarcasm tends to be lost on such methodology, for example, and that’s very much the fuel of large areas of Twitter), this is still a fascinating insight. Despite all our technological advancements and efforts to mitigate the elements and ensure comfort, weather still seems to have a distinct impact on our mood.
When I caught up with study co-author, MIT’s Dr Nick Obradovich, one question was on my mind: does this mean that part of Twitter’s bad rap for trolling and abuse could be down to the weather? “We didn’t look at, or classify, trolling or actively aggressive behaviour specifically, though since aggressive words are contained in negative affect, they could be one of the driving factors,” he explained. “Patrick Baylis [the paper’s other co-author] has separately found an increase in the use of profane words in response to hot temperatures, so that’s suggestive of an increase in aggression (though not definitive). We intend to investigate these questions further.”
Has sentiment on social media changed over time? My gut feeling was that Twitter has become a more sardonic, less frivolous place in the last decade. While it wasn’t the focus of the study, Obradovich says change has occurred – though it doesn’t correlate with my anecdotal feel at all. “There have indeed been changes over time in sentiment, for reasons that have various potential explanations.” In fact, he points out that there doesn’t seem to be any kind of neat overall trend. This site, which neither he nor Baylis operates is a great way of seeing how individual events can make Twitter a happier or sadder place.
As you can see from the Twitter sentiment crater on the night of the 2016 US presidential election, some events are certainly weather-proof. “There are a number of events that we investigate in the data that certainly appear to have larger effects on sentiment than the weather, though the relative impact of freezing temperatures (as compared to ideal temperatures) is socially meaningful,” explains Obradovich.
One other thing of note about the research: Obradovich and Bayliss were only looking to study the United States, going to great lengths to geofence the analysis as neatly as possible. So could this just be an American phenomenon? “While it’s hard to say what the relationship might look like across all countries, we have found similar results from other countries as well,” Obradovich explains, adding that the pending nature of research means he can’t elaborate just yet. “But, safe to say, we think this is bigger than just a US-only effect.”
That’s important. The global nature of the internet means you can be talking to anyone, anywhere in the world at any time. If we are as much creatures of our immediate ambient conditions as this study suggests, then we could be starting conversations with people on vastly different emotional playing fields. That might make it that little bit harder to have meaningful chats than those you might have in person.