Centre professor to lecture at Yale School of Medicine

by Matt Overing

Centre College News
Drew Morris

Drew Morris knows cold.

The assistant professor of psychology grew up in South Dakota and did research in the arctic with the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health before writing his dissertation on cold stress.

Now, he’s been asked to speak about that topic as part of the Yale School of Medicine’s Occupational and Environmental Health Program lecture series on climate change — and how increased events of extreme cold will impact humans.

“Health wise, behavior wise, what things should we be thinking about? What risks emerge in the cold that we haven't previously been thinking about? That's where I'll step in” Morris said. “My background is in psychology, although when I did my work in Finland it was more physiology, it’s important to remember that the mind the body are always working together.”

Morris explained that due to climate change, the polar vortex isn’t as stable and stretches further outside the poles of the globe. Because of this, more populations are at risk to extreme colds well below 0 degrees Fahrenheit — cold that Morris says “kills your car battery, and your spirit.”

But the dangerous effects of cold aren’t limited to long-term exposure risks like frostbite or hypothermia. In most cases, being cold, even for a short amount of time, impacts our cognition, changing how we think about our environment and our actions. 

For his master’s thesis project, Morris experimented with cold stress and specifically driving behavior while cold. He made “ice vests” for individuals to wear in a high-fidelity driving simulator and found that cold stress brings out our aggressive driving behaviors. 

“When we’re cold, we start to tailgate and slam on our brakes at stop signs,” Morris said. “You're uncomfortable and you're trying to get to your destination, that’s all your think about. It changes the way we plan in the short term — you're not thinking about being safe as much as you're thinking about getting comfortable.”

Morris said the reasons why we change how we act in the cold is related to our self-control self-efficacy.

“Self-control is the more obvious idea, can you resist temptation? I want to eat the cake but I shouldn’t,” he said. “Self-efficacy is our belief in ourselves. If you ask people when they are cold, 'do you think you would resist temptation and do the right thing,' they don't think they will. They feel uncomfortably cold and long-term goals seem too hard. That's one way we can explain people's change in behavior when they're cold.”

There are some upsides to cold though, Morris said: When it’s temporary and not a long-term stressor, cold can have a positive impact on health and mood.

“When participants volunteer for these studies and we tell them, 'I'm going to make you cold and put you through a series of tests,' they think it’s going to be miserable,” he said. “But by the end they always think it’s a fun experience. There's something energizing and invigorating about being really cold, that’s what draws people to do the polar plunge in the winter. If you know you're not stuck in it, and you don’t have to shovel the driveway for an hour, it wakes you up. It’s an engaging stress. That’s the duality of cold stress.”