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Too Hot or Too Cold at Work? Best Bet Is to Chill Out

By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 14, 2006

Office managers are under siege. They know that if they set the temperature to 74, they hear from the woman in human resources who says it is too cold. If they turn it up to 76, they hear from the man in marketing who wants to know why it is sweltering hot.

It is summer, which means inside the supposed comfort of air-conditioned buildings, thousands of people are swearing that they are dying of heat, freezing to death or otherwise experiencing thermal discomfort.

These are not trivial wars: People have been known to bring their own thermometers to work to triumphantly prove to office managers that the temperature is not what has been advertised.

(This has prompted a certain caution when the topic of temperature comes up in the workplace: When I asked our office manager about the temperature in the newsroom and she called the folks in building engineering to find out, their instant response was a defensive, "What's wrong?")

On the home front, conflict usually rises with the mercury, as people in the same household fight over the thermostat setting. Marital compromises usually leave one party freezing and the other burning up at the same bedroom temperature. At a certain stage of our lives, apparently, we might be willing to concede failure on many fronts, but we are unyielding about what the temperature is and what it ought to be.

Sorry to burst your bubble. Psychological experiments show that people are not remotely as sensitive to the temperature as they think they are.

For one thing, why is it that the same temperature -- say, 78 degrees -- can feel right during the summer but too hot during the winter? And why is it that a person will cite different optimal temperatures when asked in the summer and the winter?

"There is a very large mental component to feeling hot," said the psychologist William C. Howell, who has conducted experiments about how accurate people are at telling what the temperature is and about when people feel comfortable.

The experiments do not mean people cannot tell the difference between 70 degrees and 110. Of course they can. But the experiments do indicate that for the kind of arguments people have all the time -- in which the range of temperature being argued about is often less than five degrees -- psychological factors play at least as large a role in determining comfort as the actual temperature.

In one experiment, Howell had two groups of volunteers describe how comfortable they were in a room. Then he called one group back a couple of days later, after he had raised the temperature by five degrees. He told the volunteers that he had lost their original answers, and quizzed them again about their perceptions of the temperature and their comfort.

With the second group, Howell held the temperature in the room steady but told the volunteers that it was warmer than on the first day. Again, he had them fill out questionnaires about perceived temperature and comfort.

Both groups reported exactly the same changes in perception of temperature and comfort; Howell's suggestion to the second group that it was warmer seems to have had the same effect as actually making the room warmer.

The psychologist thinks our perceptions of comfort and discomfort are at least partly determined by social cues. That annual staple of summer and winter media reports -- tales of unbearably hot summers and unbearably cold winters -- probably contributes to people's perceptions that it is uncomfortably hot or cold.

Howell has lived in both Arizona and Ohio. As people who move from warm places to cold climes and vice versa realize, human beings are capable of adapting to a very wide range of temperatures.

This is not to say that people ought to feel fine when it is zero or 100 degrees. Not everything is psychological. In fact, experiments show that people's ability to attend to a task involving detailed concentration declines after the temperature crosses 79 degrees. Another experiment, which called for sustained attention, found that as the temperature rose from 74 degrees to 82 degrees and then to 90 degrees, people grew more distractible.

"The take-home practical message as far as conservation is concerned is that one or two degrees nationwide could make a huge difference (in energy consumption) without having any substantial effect on comfort at all, if people were not locked into that mind-set," Howell said.

Restaurant owners think they can lose customers by keeping a room too hot but not by keeping it too cold, and they have long erred on the side of freezing. Again, Howell said, raising the thermostat by a few degrees in the summer probably will not hurt business -- and would probably please the people whose teeth chatter when they sit down to lunch.

Of course, many people think that only other people are affected by psychological cues, whereas they themselves are as reliable as thermometers.

Sure.

Tell your office manager.

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