How could the weather, seemingly trivial, influence such an important decision?
Imagine a scenario in an Admissions office: Susan Smith, the Admissions Officer for a highly selective university, is reviewing application files. Before her are two strong applications. The competition for spaces is tight. She can only admit one of these two strong applicants. One prospective student demonstrates more academic strength: the president of the high school chemistry club and intern in a Stanford research lab testing a new cancer treatment drug. The other applicant shines in athletics: a top track recruit who placed first in the 800 meters at the Junior Olympics. Imagine all else is equal. The Admissions Officer, in her oak-paneled office, sips her coffee while staring at the gothic spires in the distance. It is a beautiful sunny afternoon. Which applicant is she more likely to admit? Based on Professor Uri Simonsohn’s study published in The Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, the more athletic applicant gains an edge. If is cloudy, the chemistry club president has the edge.
Now imagine you and your daughter will visit this highly selective university. Your daughter is torn between this school and another good university, which is better known as a party school. You secretly want your daughter to enroll in the more academically intensive university. In choosing which day to tour the campus, should you check the weather? Yes, finds Professor Simonsohn in another paper published in The Economic Journal. If she visits the academically intensive university on a cloudy day, she is more likely to decide in its favor over the party school.
How could the weather, seemingly trivial, influence such an important decision? Although emotions may sway our decisions, we imagine that such important decisions with long-term implications are based on carefully assessing and weighing the material factors. In selecting a college, we typically think of decisions based on financial aid, academic concentration, teaching style, size of classes, athletic and extracurricular offerings, location in a city or rural area, and distance from home. We carefully gather information over a long time period to predict how happy and successful we would be at that school. It would seem counterintuitive that the weather would affect one of life’s major decisions. Certainly the day’s weather conditions should not influence the admissions officer. The weather adds to the randomness of admission, giving students even less hope of their control over the process.
The Weather Studies But weather, according to Simonsohn’s two studies, does influence these college decisions. After finding that cloudy days increase students’ desire to participate in academic activities, Simonsohn examines the weather’s influence, specifically that of cloud cover’s influence, on both a student’s decision to attend one school over another and on an admissions officer’s decision to admit a more academic student over a more athletic student. In his first study, Simonsohn reviewed the enrollment decisions for 1,284 students who visited the academically intensive university, and he reviewed the weather and cloud cover on those days. Those students who visited the academically intensive university on a cloudy day were more likely to select that college. In the second study, he reviewed 682 admissions decisions at an academically intensive school. Once again cloud cover influenced decisions. On sunny days, non-academic attributes, such as athletics, were given greater weight; on cloudy days, the academic attributes are given greater weight. In short, the weather affected admissions decisions.
Implications We cannot control the weather. But we can acknowledge how seemingly immaterial factors, like the weather, can subtly influence even high stakes decisions such as college. So what should we do with this information?
1. Long-term college decisions: In the college search process, this research highlights the need for students to make decisions over the long run and not based on one college visit. Before visiting the universities, students should create a list of desired attributes that they seek from their university (e.g., can I study both Latin and molecular biology, row competitively, and walk to town). After collecting information on each college, they should weigh each college against these factors. Then students should be aware of situational factors (such as the weather) that might affect their decision. If it comes down to two schools, perhaps revisit them on a cloudy day.
2. Nature of Admissions Decisions. It is hard to console your son or daughter when they are rejected from their first-choice university. The rejection letter invariably touts the number of applicants and the limited spots. It never mentions the weather. The result is more devastating if someone else at the high school, with similar scores and grades, is admitted. Fortunately the well-being literature shows how resilient we are and finding happiness in new situations. Rather than dwell on the schools or jobs that rejected us, we appreciate the opportunities that came thereafter. So your son or daughter should hedge their bets by applying to several similarly situated schools. With some of the most selective colleges only admitting 10 and even 5% of applicants, sometimes the final decision does come down to something seemingly insignificant like the weather. And if a rejection e-mail or letter arrives from the top-choice, then perhaps blame it on the weather, and move-on.