The air temperatures in most office buildings can be traced back to a decades-old thermal comfort standard that tends to be much more suitable for men than for women.
That’s because the standard is based on the metabolic rate of an average 40-year-old man. Women have, on average, a much slower metabolic rate than men, which means that they tend to “feel the cold” more acutely.
But turning up the office thermostat will do more than provide women with a comfortable work environment. It may also increase their productivity. For a new study, published last week in the journal PLOS One, has found that women perform better at certain cognitive tasks as temperatures increase.
“It’s been documented that women like warmer indoor temperatures than men — but the idea until now has been that it’s a matter of personal preference,” says Tom Chang, one of the study’s authors and an associate professor of finance and business economics at the University of Southern California, in a released statement. “What we found is it’s not just whether you feel comfortable or not, but that your performance on things that matter — in math and verbal dimensions, and how hard you try — is affected by temperature.”
That’s true for men, too — although apparently to a lesser degree. The study found that when temperatures were lowered, men performed better at various cognitive tasks, although the difference was much less pronounced than for women when the temperatures were raised.
How the study was done
For the study, Chang and his co-author, Agne Kajackalte, a behavioral economist at the Berlin Social Science Center in Germany, recruited 543 German university students. (Forty-one percent identified as women.) The students were brought into a lab in Berlin in groups of 23 to 25, where they took a series of cognitive tests involving logic, math and verbal skills. They were told they would receive a cash reward based on how many of the tests’ questions they answered correctly.
Each student was then randomly assigned to take the tests in a room set to a temperature between 61 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
After all the students had completed the tests, Chang and Kajackalte compared the results taken at the various temperatures. They found a statistically significant association — but only for the tests involving math and verbal skills.
They also found that the relationship between temperature and test scores was different for the male and female students. The women “generally exhibit better cognitive performance at the warmer end of the temperature distribution while men do better at colder temperatures,” they write.
The increase in the men’s performance when the temperatures were lowered was, however, smaller than the increase in the women’s performance when the temperatures were raised.
“One of the most surprising things we learned is this isn’t about the extremes of temperature,” says Change. “It’s not like we’re getting to freezing or boiling hot. Even if you go from 60 to 75 degrees, which is a relatively normal temperature range, you still see a meaningful variation in performance.”
The researchers also found that the better scores by the women at warmer temperatures were primarily because they tended to answer more of the questions.
“We interpret this as evidence that the increased performance is driven in part by an increase in effort,” Change and Kajackalte write. “Similar, the decrease in male cognitive performance [at higher temperatures] is partially driven by a decrease in observable effort.”
Raising the temperature stakes
This study was observational, and therefore can’t prove a direct connection between room temperature and results on cognitive tests. Furthermore, all the study’s participants were university students living in a single city. The findings may not be applicable to other populations.
In addition, each student was tested only once. Factors that have nothing to do with room temperature may have affected their scores that day.
Still, the findings are provocative, and are likely to heat up discussions around the water cooler this summer as office buildings turn up (or down) their air conditioning.
“Ultimately, our results potentially raise the stakes for the battle of the thermostat, suggesting that it is not just about comfort, but also about cognitive performance and productivity,” write Change and Kajackalte.
“Given the relative effect sizes [between men and women in the study], our results suggest that in gender-balanced workplaces, temperatures should be set significantly higher than current standards,” they add.
FMI: You can read the study online in full at the PLOS One website.