Could the Polar Vortex Be Why We Love Chicago?


"Vapor" rises off of Lake Michigan during the Polar Vortex. Image by Jim Kloet

Chicago is an amazing city. On top of the best pizza and hot dogs in the world, we have top tier live music venues, museums, theaters, and universities. Oh, and don’t forget about the breweries, brunch spots, beaches, dogs, and really everything else that you could ever want in a city. I challenge anyone to visit Chicago for a week and not come away thinking that they just left a thriving and vibrant metropolis...

...for, like, eight months of the year. If you happen to visit during those other four months, anytime from late autumn through early spring, Chicago is a torturous expedition into the frozen pits of some desolate Siberian prison. The streets and sidewalks turn into sheets of invisible ice, taunting you to try and leave your apartment. If you have the courage to step outside, be prepared for, literally, the coldest and strongest wind of your entire life to blow directly into your face for as long as you’re out there. Every molecule of water in your skin freezes. It is the definition of miserable.

This year has been especially bad, with the onslaught of the Polar Vortex. We got a ton of snow, then freezing cold, then another ton of snow, then more freezing cold, over and over again. A reasonable person might consider removing himself from a situation that is so undesirable. I mean, there are plenty of cities in the world with good food and culture and education, where there isn’t such a thing as a “wind chill” or a “snow day.” Chicago is amazing, but it isn’t the only amazing place in the world, or even this country.

So why do we stay here? Could it be that we’re just deluding ourselves, that we’re too lazy or scared to head out and set up shop somewhere else? I don’t think that’s the case. We’re Chicagoans, dammit: we know how to work, and we aren’t afraid of change.

So then I wonder - could terrible weather like the Polar Vortex actually increase our love for Chicago?

Surprisingly, I think the answer might be yes. The biggest reason stems from a classic idea in psychology, called cognitive dissonance. When we have a belief about something that conflicts with our actions, we experience cognitive dissonance, which comes in the form of stress, confusion, or other kinds of negative feelings. Since people don’t like feeling bad, we are motivated to do what we can to resolve the dissonance. To achieve the resolution, we can either change our beliefs or change our actions, so that they’re no longer in conflict.

The gist of this dissonance-resolution theory is pretty intuitive: some things make us feel bad, and when we feel bad, we do something to reduce that bad feeling. But there is also a large body of experimental evidence supporting these ideas.

In one of the classic studies, two groups of children were presented with a cool new toy, but they were told that they could not play with it. In addition, one of the groups was told that they would be scolded if they did play with the toy; the other group was not warned. After a period of time, all the children were allowed to play with the toy. The study reported that the children in the group who were originally told they would be scolded were less likely to play with the toy than children from the other group. Researchers interpreted these findings as evidence that the children who were warned with scolding changed their attitudes to be in line with their behavior - they didn’t play with the toy because they had decided that they toy wasn’t worth their attention.

The situation almost works in reverse for the case of the weather improving our attitudes toward Chicago. We have a belief, in this case that the weather is very bad for a long part of the year. That belief is in conflict with our behavior, which is the act of living in Chicago. Cognitive dissonance arises, so something must change!

Since there hasn’t been a mass migration from Chicago in recent memory, it doesn’t appear that the change was in our behavior: we still live here. Instead, it is possible that we’ve decided that Chicago is so great that it is worth tolerating four months of misery. In effect, because we have to deal with the crappy weather, our attitude toward Chicago is more favorable.

I know there are a lot of important reasons people choose to live in a certain place, unrelated to the climate there. Work, family, health, and a million other things keep us tethered to our homes. And don’t get me wrong - the weather this winter has been awful in a nontrivial way, so I am not saying that any bright side outweighs the real consequences that this winter has wrought on us so far. But, it’s nice to think that there may be a very small silver lining to this Polar Vortex nonsense, by making us a little bit happier here if we decide to stay.

(Is it summer yet?)




Wow! That classic study you

Wow! That classic study you mentioned, its one hellava conclusion to draw from the data. And even as far as the hypothesis goes, could our feelings possibly be under our conscious will that we can use a tool or a method to reduce it?

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