Month: October 2012

Obama should pray for sun – Psycho-meteorological effects on government approval

Romney should pray for rain because rain improves a conservative’s chances of getting elected. Having covered this ‘Republican rain advantage’ in my last post, I will turn to a second reason why the presidential candidates should monitor the election day weather in this post. It turns out that the weather influences how well the government is perceived. Could this be exploited by the candidates?

George Bush; Ariel Sharon; Mahmud Abba; Red Sea Summit

Bush finding approval under the sun.

The weather has got a curious effect on the government’s approval ratings. Alex Cohen looked at Bush’s approval ratings of the year 2005. He found that they were significantly better when the sun was out at the respondent’s location compared to ambiguous weather. Note that this is opposite to the ‘Republican rain advantage’ covered in the last post suggesting that a different explanation needs to be found to explain this one.
The easiest explanation would be this: it is a simple coincidence. However, German researchers Michael Mutz and Sylvia Kämpfer did a similar analysis for German polling data gathered in 2008. Just like Cohen they found sunshine to increase government satisfaction. Going beyond this ‘incumbent sunshine advantage’, they found that a rainy day actually reduced government satisfaction. It should be noted that in 2008 Germany was ruled by a so called grand coalition formed by the two main centre-right and centre-left parties. Therefore, the Republican rain advantage cannot account for this effect either. So, given a replication in a different year and a completely different democratic system, there must be a reason for this effect other than coincidence.
But is it worth our time to dwell on this issue? Yes it is. Compared to what sort of things political candidates – and the media – usually focus on, the weather effect is substantial. In Germany it was found to be stronger than the effect of gender and appeared comparable to the effect of education. In the US study it was, depending on season, stronger than the effect of age, unemployment or income. In other words, if it is worth worrying about ‘the female vote’ or the ‘pensioner vote’ it is also worth looking at the weather effect.
Brack Obama; Joe Biden; White House; Sun; Golf

Obama during a time of high approval.

The reason given for this ‘incumbent sun advantage’ mirror to some degree what I suggested to be the reason for the ‘Republican rain advantage’. The effect of weather on mood is the key link. By and large, sunshine improves mood. Whether it does so directly by increasing the availability of the neurotransmitter serotonin or indirectly by facilitating outdoor events with friends does not matter. Once the weather has changed your mood there are three ways it can cloud your judgement. First, the information we take in tends to conform to our mood – mood-congruent attention. Second, the more a memory agrees with our mood the more likely it is to be remembered – mood-congruent memory. Third, when faced with complex, vague or unimportant decisions people tend to be guided by their gut feeling, i.e. they use their mood as explicit information for their judgement.
In sum, when you are asked to evaluate the government and the sun is shining, you are more likely to attend to something good, remember something good and have your assessment clouded by your good gut feeling. No wonder you tend to evaluate the government as better even though it is not responsible for the weather.
However, this effect has no obvious application for the candidates. Obama appears to benefit from the political climate as much as from the actual weather. Romney, though, will have to pray for rain – or hope that the good feelings not just lead to a better assessment of the incumbent but also of the challenger.


Cohen, A. (2011). The photosynthetic President: Converting sunshine into popularity The Social Science Journal, 48 (2), 295-304 DOI: 10.1016/j.soscij.2010.11.007

Mutz, M., & Kämpfer, S. (2011). …und nun zum Wetter: Beeinflusst die Wetterlage die Einschätzung von politischen und wirtschaftlichen Sachverhalten? Zeitschrift für Soziologie, 40 (4), 208-226


If you liked this post, you may also like its sister post:

Romney should pray for rain – psycho-meteorological effects on GOP vote share



1) By White House photo by Eric Draper [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

2) By Pete Souza for The Official White House Photostream (P042409PS-0122) via Wikimedia Commons


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Romney should pray for rain – psycho-meteorological effects on GOP vote share

I would not be surprised if Mitt Romney was going through the weather forecast for November 6th, the date of the next US presidential election. As the Republican candidate, he will know that his chances of being elected are higher if people are faced with pouring rain upon leaving for the ballot box. Research supports this opinion but the underlying reasons could give the Obama campaign a strategy to undo this Republican rain advantage.

Mitt Romney; GOP; Republican; President; Candidate

Must have been raining outside. Good for him.

The media love covering election day weather under the assumption that it somehow matters for the political outcome. Is that true? Research by Brad Gomez and colleagues indeed supports this notion. They looked at all US presidential elections since 1948 and found that Republican candidates tended to benefit from rain and snow. In 1960 this effect may have helped Kennedy to win the election due to dry weather. Moreover, in 2000 it may have affected the infamous Florida vote in Bush’s favour due to higher than usual rain in many counties.
This effect is not spurious. It has recently been replicated in a completely different electoral system: the Netherlands. Rob Eisinga and colleagues have shown that various left parties benefit from dry election days and that various right or liberal parties benefit from pouring rain. The conservative advantage on rainy days seems to be real.

 The rationality in weather effects

The usual reason given for this bizarre effect is a rational one. The story goes a bit like this. Bad weather increases the cost – i.e. effort or reluctance – of going to the polling booth. Such cost-considerations may not affect conservative voters that much because they are more politically committed, more used to working outdoors (farming) or have got a higher chance of owning a car. The typical left voter, on the other hand, could be imagined as being urban, without car, possibly old and, thus, unwilling to wait for the bus in the rain in order to get to the polling station.
Does this story work? Is the Republican rain advantage really due to people behaving like rational actors? The data don’t really support this story. Consider that every inch of rain above normal reduces the voter turn-out by only 0.9% whereas it changes the election outcome by 2.5%. Simple Democratic voter abstention cannot account for the full effect. Many voters must be influenced by the weather in terms of their actual voting decision – rather than just whether to vote or not.

 The irrationality in weather effects

Obama in New Hampshire; president; Barack Obama; election

Obama with help from above.

Given that the rational actor model fails a more sophisticated psychological theory is needed. The relation between mood and helping behaviour may be the key link between the weather and election outcomes. I don’t think it is a stretch to say that the most persistent difference between right and left wing parties is captured in a ‘each for his own’ vs ‘help where help is needed’ dichotomy. Whether it comes to civil rights, health care or the tax system, right wing parties tend to favour individual responsibility and opportunity over collective responsibility and protection. The effect of the weather on voting decisions may be related to changing a feeling of responsibility for one another.
There is some suggestive evidence for this proposal. Psychological studies carried out by Matthew Keller and colleagues have shown that mood is positively influenced by going out and experiencing good weather (at least in the spring). Next, good mood is associated with more helping behaviour – clearly established in a review by Carlson and colleagues. So, a causal chain linking the weather to voting could look like this: weather –> mood –> helping.
One should not trust such causal chains too much without a direct test of the first cause affecting the last effect. Michael Cunningham has provided just that. He looked at helping behaviour through people’s readiness to participate in a lengthy questionnaire. People approached outside were more likely to stop to hear the experimenter’s request on a sunny day. Once stopped they were ready to answer more questions if the sun was out. Clearly, randomly chosen members of the public are more ready to help during good weather – as predicted by the causal chain ‘weather –> mood –> helping’. By changing voters’ readiness to provide concrete help the weather may also influence how people think the government should treat its citizens – whether to leave them alone or whether to assist them.

 What can Obama do?

Given the role of the ‘mood –> helping’ effect in explaining the ‘weather –> vote’ effect, what strategy should the Obama administration adopt to counter-act the Republican rain advantage? Following this model, I suggest that they should emphasize health care and minority/women rights if key states are predicted to show good weather. Military successes like the bin Laden raid in Pakistan should be focussed on with bad weather. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, should catch up in the polls within the next few weeks and then pray for rain.

Carlson M, Charlin V, & Miller N (1988). Positive mood and helping behavior: a test of six hypotheses. Journal of personality and social psychology, 55 (2), 211-29 PMID: 3050025

Cunningham, M. (1979). Weather, mood, and helping behavior: Quasi experiments with the sunshine samaritan. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37 (11), 1947-1956 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.37.11.1947

Keller MC, Fredrickson BL, Ybarra O, Côté S, Johnson K, Mikels J, Conway A, & Wager T (2005). A warm heart and a clear head. The contingent effects of weather on mood and cognition. Psychological science, 16 (9), 724-31 PMID: 16137259

Eisinga R, Te Grotenhuis M, & Pelzer B (2012). Weather conditions and political party vote share in Dutch national parliament elections, 1971-2010. International journal of biometeorology, 56 (6), 1161-5 PMID: 22065127

Gomez, B., Hansford, T., & Krause, G. (2007). The Republicans Should Pray for Rain: Weather, Turnout, and Voting in U.S. Presidential Elections The Journal of Politics, 69 (03), 649-663 DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2508.2007.00565.x
ResearchBlogging.orgIf you liked this post, you may also like its sister post:

Obama should pray for sun – Psycho-meteorological effects on approval ratings



1) By Brian Rawson-Ketchum via Wikimedia Commons

2) By Fogster (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons


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The mysterious appeal of too loud music

Felix Baumgartner jumps

What would your next step have been?

At 39km above planet earth, would you have made Felix Baumgartner’s step off the platform? It was very dangerous, no doubt. But is this the reason why you wouldn’t have? People engage in many dangerous things. And I am not talking about skydiving. I mean the ordinary, every day kind of danger. Surely, some dangers can hardly be avoided, say road traffic (which is the leading cause of death for people in my age group). For others there is no obvious non-dangerous equivalent. But what if there was an activity with no practical value, which could easily be carried out without danger, but which nonetheless millions of people worldwide engage in? Listening to too loud music is such an activity.

Is this an exaggeration? Surely, if loud music was really dangerous, people would avoid it. Make no mistake, the scientific consensus clearly lays out the danger. Round about half the people exposed to music professionally show some hearing loss. Researchers have found worrying hearing impairments in classical musicians, rock/pop musicians, and music bar tenders. And the danger is not limited to professionals. The majority of rock concert attendees experience temporary auditory problems such as tinnitus or being hard of hearing. You are actually a daredevil when you listen to too loud music.
But this behaviour is not limited to your typical daredevil characters à la Felix Baumgartner. People flock to very loud concerts. Even toddlers prefer fast and loud music over slow and quiet music. Perhaps the clearest example for loudness’s paradoxical appeal is the band Sun 0))). Their music is without discernible rhythm, harmony or melody. Pure loudness. And still, they are successful. Hear for yourself:
The Sun 0))) concert is a good example of the mysterious attraction of too loud music but it may also offer clues for understanding why people subject themselves to it. Actually, not just this band’s concerts are too loud. Most concerts are. And so are night clubs. This is not the place to go to for a quiet night out. This is where you want energy, fun and excitement. It turns out that this is exactly what loud music is associated with. An Australian research team led by Roger Dean showed that the perceived arousal of music – whether a classical piece or Sun 0))) like noise – followed its loudness profile. Sweet melody or not, when people go out they want energetic music. And this music happens to be loud.

Beyond going out – why listen to too loud music when sitting still?

However, such an explanation can only be part of the answer. We have all seen the person on the bus with his headphones in or were annoyed by the colleague on the next desk with his music choice permeating the office through his headphones. These people are not out dancing. They look pretty low energy, if anything. And still they put their hearing at risk.
Neil Todd and Frederick Cody from the University of Manchester may offer a solution to the puzzle. They found that loud tones not only activate our sense of hearing but also our sense of balance. This happens because the nice distinction between these two modalities does not work for a structure in the ear called the saccule. It responds to head movements as well as rather low sounds. Through this structure muscles automatically react, explaining why deaf people’s muscles can nonetheless react to loud clicks whereas vestibularly impaired people’s can’t. Todd and Cody found the saccule to start reacting around the so called ‘rock’n’roll’-threshold of 105 dB. Is it just a coincidence that the beat of club music is typically in the tonal range and at the loudness level of the saccule? Could it be that the enjoyment of too loud music works through the same mechanism as the pleasure derived from baby swings, roller coasters and head banging? If so, the fun of skydiving and too loud music listening may have more in common than generally thought.
The inner ear: vestibular system (balance), auditory system (hearing) and the saccule (balance and hearing)

Yellow: Hearing. Brown: Balance. The saccule is neither.

The greatest mystery surrounding too loud music, though, are not people seeking it in quiet environments such as the bus or the office. The strangest thing is the appeal of too loud environments even when one plugs the ears. It has become more and more common to go to rock concerts with ear plugs. The obvious question is why people don’t just refrain from going to rock concerts all together and wait until concert organisers realise that they overdid it with the decibel levels.

Seeking intimacy through loudness

The final piece of the puzzle could be an idea exemplified in research done by Russo and colleagues from Ryerson University. They found that ordinary people could successfully distinguish piano, cello and trombone tones which they never heard but instead only felt on their backs. Even deaf people were able to do this. This research suggests that, yet again, the involvement of a second modality explains too loud music seeking. Hearing and vision are often grouped together because they reveal distant information. Smell, taste and touch, on the other hand, are intimate sensations only available when directly interacting with an object or person. If someone sees or hears your fiancé(e) you may not mind. But imagine if someone tried to touch or even taste him/her? There is something intimate about touch and perhaps we seek this intimacy when trying to immerse ourselves in music. Incidentally, this is also what was advertised as the novelty of Felix Baumgartner’s jump. For the first time someone can say what it felt like to break the sound barrier. Previously, people only knew what it sounded and looked like. Somehow, this was not enough. We are curious about what he will report because we attach so much importance to the immediacy of touch. For ‘touching’ music, we need loud music as our skin is a poor substitute for the sensitive ears. Through the sense of touch music can cease to be felt at a distance and, instead, become a much more personal full body experience.
Has the mystery been solved? It seems as if modern psychology offers a range of explanations for why a perfectly avoidable but harmful activity is pursued by millions of people. Loud music offers a level of energy, fun and intimacy which soft music just can’t match. If you listen to too loud music, you have more in common with daredevils like Baumgartner than you thought.

Dean, R.T., Bailes, F., & Schubert, E. (2011). Acoustic intensity causes perceived changes in arousal levels in music: an experimental investigation. PloS one, 6 (4) PMID: 21533095

Lamont, A. (2003). Toddlers’ musical preferences: musical preference and musical memory in the early years. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 999, 518-9 PMID: 14681176

Russo, F.A., Ammirante, P., & Fels, D.I. (2012). Vibrotactile discrimination of musical timbre. Journal of experimental psychology. Human perception and performance, 38 (4), 822-6 PMID: 22708743

Todd, N.P. McAngus, & Cody, F.W. (2000). Vestibular responses to loud dance music: A physiological basis of the ‘rock and roll threshold’? Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 107 (1), 496-500 DOI: 10.1121/1.428317

Zhao, F., Manchaiah, VK., French, D., & Price, S.M. (2010). Music exposure and hearing disorders: an overview. International journal of audiology, 49 (1), 54-64 PMID: 20001447



1) Photograph by: Felix Baumgartner, Twitter via the Vancouver Sun

2) The Vestibular System by Thomas Haslwanter via Wikimedia




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Is ADHD different around the globe? The role of research cultures

An illness is an illness wherever you are. Perhaps this is true for organic diseases but the cultural background can play a tremendous role in the progression and even diagnosis of mental disorders (see e.g., David Dobbs recent post at Wired). However, what has been neglected is an appreciation of how culture affects the research underlying the diagnosis and treatment of psychological disorders. As a consequence, our view on the disorder can change.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder shows how culture can exert quite some effect on psychiatric research. In a 2007 meta-analysis by Polanczyk and colleagues prevalence rates were found to differ markedly between geographic regions, but not in the way you might expect. As opposed to the myth of ADHD as an American social construct, European and North American ADHD rates were not significantly different. But both were significantly different to the prevalence rates in Africa and the Middle East.
ADHD in school

One case of ADHD. Or perhaps two. Depends where we are.

However, Polanczyk and colleagues state that this is most likely due to different criteria for diagnosis and study inclusion. For example, while the diagnostic system published by the World Health Organisation is quite strict, the one published by the American Psychiatric Association is more liberal. Depending on which one the researchers adopt, the same person could be part of the ADHD group in one study and the control group in another one.
These different inclusion criteria appear to bias international comparisons. The severe restrictions on ADHD diagnosis in Middle Eastern studies can increase the apparent ADHD severity and social problems. Don’t be surprised then if you read that Middle Eastern ADHD kids fare worse in life than their American counterparts.
Beyond different inclusion criteria, the focus of studies can differ by geographic region. In a recent review, Hodgkins et al. (2012) showed that about half of North American and European ADHD studies sampled adults. East Asian researchers, on the other hand, were mainly interested in adolescents and only sampled adults in about a third of studies. Will this result in ADHD as a potentially life long disease in the Western view while the Easten perspective sees it as part of the transition to adulthood? If so, researchers could be partly to blame for this difference.
Finally, what life consequences a ADHD diagnosis entails is differently researched. While East Asians are mainly interested in effects on self-esteem, Europeans focus more on antisocial behaviour. North American researchers, on the other hand, measure drug abuse and addiction outcomes more than their European or East Asian counterparts. A single headline grabbing result could forever associate inattentive kids with drug abuse. Don’t expect this result to emerge in Asia, it is likely to be found in the US.
This is not to say that ADHD, its prevalence in different age groups or its life consequences are entirely determined by research agendas. Evidence is still needed to support diagnosis or treatment. However, whether anyone ever looked for this evidence is dependent on culture. Across the world research cultures, i.e. strategies to get scientific evidence, differ. Don’t be surprised then if evidence based psychiatry differs as well.

Hodgkins P, Arnold LE, Shaw M, Caci H, Kahle J, Woods AG, & Young S (2011). A systematic review of global publication trends regarding long-term outcomes of ADHD. Frontiers in psychiatry / Frontiers Research Foundation, 2 PMID: 22279437

Polanczyk G, de Lima MS, Horta BL, Biederman J, & Rohde LA (2007). The worldwide prevalence of ADHD: a systematic review and metaregression analysis. The American journal of psychiatry, 164 (6), 942-8 PMID: 17541055

1) By CDC ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


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