A new study from USC may have upped the stakes of office thermostat battles. The results of a study recently published in PLOS ONE demonstrated that temperature impacts more than just comfort—productivity and cognitive performance are also affected.
The study was led by Tom Chang—associate professor of finance and business economics at the USC Marshall School of Business—and Agne Kajackaite from the WZB Berlin Social Science Center in Germany. In a statement from USC regarding the study, Chang stated: “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.”
The study consisted of 543 students in Berlin, Germany. They were asked to perform math, verbal, and cognitive reflection tasks in a setting where the indoor temperatures were manipulated. The temperature varied between 16.19°C to 32.57°C (61.14–90.63°F). For the math tasks, participants were asked to add five two-digit numbers without the help of a calculator. The verbal tasks consisted of building as many German words as possible with a set of 10 given letters. The cognitive reflection tests were set up as such that the intuitive answer is the wrong answer, which, according to the study, is a test extensively used in psychology literature.
Results showed that women performed better at higher temperatures than low. They attempted to solve and correctly solved more math and verbal tasks at high temperatures versus lower temperatures. Men showed opposite results, performing better at lower temperatures. For the cognitive reflection test, the temperature had no impact on either gender.
One aspect of the study that surprised Chang was the amount of variation within a relatively normal temperature range. He told USC reporters “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 authors suggest that to increase productivity in mixed-gender office settings, administrators should consider setting the temperature higher. This study was the first of its kind to explore the link between gender, temperature, and cognitive performance. The results will likely have implications not only for office climate control but also for building design.