Why Do People Go Absolutely Feral During a Heatwave?

As a sizzling heatwave hits the UK, we ask an expert how the hottest day yet of 2022 will affect our behaviour.
Topless man with "free kiss" on his chest during heatwave
Photo: Chris Bethell

It’s hot. Maybe too hot. And if you’re a Brit, then you’ve probably spent the past week thinking about nothing other than how you’re going to survive this heatwave.

Today is set to be the hottest day of the year in the UK, with temperatures of up to 34C (or 93.2F), and the UK Health Security Agency and Met Office has issued a Level 3 heat alert for London and the South East.


But, what is it about the heat that makes us go absolutely feral? Looking outside my window, I can already count at least three red lobster-skinned men walking down the street in nothing but cargo shorts, flip flops and more confidence than they deserve. 

And if past heatwaves are anything to go by, tonight we will see more than a few sweaty fights outside clubs, baked vomit on the pavement and enough streaky fake tan to make an Essex girl like me proud.

To find out more about why Brits are so unbearable in the heat, we spoke to Dr Susannah Crockford, a senior lecturer in Environmental Anthropology at the University of Exeter.

VICE: What are the main reactions from British people during a heatwave?
Dr Susannah Crockford:
British people tend to do one of two things during a heatwave, sometimes simultaneously. They tend to go outside and sit in the sun, without wearing much in terms of clothing and drink lots of alcohol. But they also start moaning and complaining about how hot it is. It is always too hot or too cold for Brits in this country.

But why is it that British people react in such an extreme way?
Because we don't have the infrastructure to deal with heat here. In Britain, we have no air conditioning. It is a country that has historically had cold winters and mild summers, so our buildings are designed to trap heat. There’s also something called the urban heat island effect, which basically increases temperatures in cities where there are a lot of buildings and pavements. We also have this weird pious thing against air conditioning. Like when something is going wrong, our response is to moan about it, and not do anything to ameliorate the problem. So there are infrastructural reasons and also cultural reasons.


What about people who spend all day walking around shirtless? Is that normal?
If you look at people who live in hot desert cultures, they are  not walking around in crop tops and shorts. They are actually covered in material. The tan is not actually good for you – it is your skin burning under the sun’s UV radiation. But people in Britain are all about tans. You really want a nice loose fitting pair of linen trousers and a shirt because that gives you extra protection from the sun. British culture is not about protecting yourself from heat. It is also a status thing. There are high-class associations with being tanned. It means you can afford nice Mediterranean holidays, although now there’s also fake tan.

And when men walk around with their shirts off, is that like a masculinity thing?
Yes. There’s a very strong association between masculinity, as least in European and American cultures, and risk-taking behaviour. You see this in all kinds of statistics: Men take more risks. Partly, it is about showing you are strong and you don't care about things and partly it is thinking that things won't affect you. If you are a white man, you are actually able to take more risks, because there is this whole social structure to support you in your risk-taking behaviour and even reward you for it. Yeah, so they're not gonna cover up in the sun.


Brits are notoriously badly behaved during a heatwave – why is that?
It’s like a kind of summer holiday effect. I don't think it's the heat that
makes them behave badly – people can live in very hot countries, and they don't act like that. But on a summer holiday, the rules of your normal life are relaxed. And British people are very, I don't want to say repressed, but there's definitely a lot of social control that goes on. When you go on holiday you don’t feel that so much, so there's this kind of relief. And when you feel that relief, you drink a lot of alcohol and your inhibitions are lowered, you behave very badly. This happens when people go on holiday and I think it happens when the weather gets hot. 

And what about drinking alcohol in the sun? Does that make Brits more rowdy than normal?
Increased alcohol consumption will always cause more antisocial behaviour because that’s what alcohol does – it is disinhibiting. But I will say that Britain has this very, very toxic drinking culture. People in Britain drink like they don't want to live. You notice this when you go to other countries where people drink with food, or can drink socially without getting blackout drunk. And it is related to the way that things like masculinity and class are constructed. There's also a lot of associations between summer drinking and specific summer drinks like Pimm’s. You’re sitting out in the sun, and then you drink too many and you’re wasted.


What about sex drive? Can that change during a heatwave?
That’s really not my area of research. But there isn’t any biological or physical connection between heat and people having sex. It could be linked to the alcohol consumption or, like I was saying, the release mechanism.

And what are the risks of being out in the heat for too long? How can you tell?
You can get disoriented, you can start to lose consciousness. I mean, this is extremely rare, I would say, but in the worst cases, you can lose consciousness altogether. Heat stress can kill you – at least in Arizona, hundreds of people die every year from heat stress.

You should also be wearing sunscreen all day and make sure you are drinking enough water. If you’re drinking alcohol, you should drink even more water because it will dehydrate you. Vomiting will also dehydrate you. It’s honestly terrible to drink when it's hot. 

The first sign of dehydration that you've got to look out for is actually your pee. You're meant to drink about a gallon of water, about 4.5 litres. If you’re drinking alcohol, then you’re probably not doing that, and the risk of dehydration is very high. The first thing you'll start to notice is that your pee will get very cloudy. Healthy pee is clear and you will pee frequently. The cloudier and the brighter it gets, the worse the dehydration. 

And if you plan to ignore all these warnings and drink too much?
Please drink in the evening, not in the middle of the day – that's what people do in hot countries.