The below freezing temperatures that afflicted the country during the polar vortex posed a challenge for everyone in their routine activities, including the criminal kind.
But is there a correlation between temperature and crime rates?
The idea has been debated for decades. Several studies show correlation and mild-correlation between crime rates and temperature, but the results are only suggestive and far from concrete.
Social Psychologist Leonard Berkowitz’s 1983 study presented the “negative affect” theory. It suggests that heat increases the likelihood of aggressive behavior. Six years later , Iowa State University’s Craig. A. Anderson proposed a counter-theory, the “negative affect escape” theory, which states that high temperatures induce an escape reaction rather than a confrontation.
From a biological standpoint, the notion makes sense.
Heat increases heart rate, blood circulation, nervous system activity, and testosterone production. These are all catalysts present during fight-or-flight reactions.
Dennis Kenney, professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York says that “crime changes” but not overall criminal activity. Kenney has over 35 years of experience in criminal justice and is former director of research for the Police Executive Research Forum.
“Extreme heat has an effect on people. It makes them more irritable,” Kenney noted.” But it’s a stretch to argue that climate change affects crime rates.”
However, climate does have an effect on the types of crimes committed, according to Kenney. During the winter season, domestic violence goes up and street violence tends to drop.
In cold months, there is “longer exposure to triggers that create conflict,” says Kenney. “When the climate changes, there is variation in crime.”
For example, a dispute in the home might lead to greater altercations when a spouse is unable to leave the house to destress due to the weather. Longer exposure increases the likelihood of aggression.
So while criminals may be off the streets due to the cold, criminal activity might be closer to home than you think.