In offices around the world, men and women are locked in what has become known as the “battle of thermostat.” Temperature systems in many modern offices follow a decades-old model based on the resting metabolic rate of an “average male,” which is typically faster than a woman’s metabolic rate. Faster metabolisms also generate more body heat, which in turn means that women are often left shivering in the workplace—an issue that may extend beyond the indignity of being forced to huddle under a blanket while trying to do your job. A new study, published in PLOS One, has found that cold temperatures can negatively impact women’s cognitive performance.
Researchers Tom Chang and Agne Kajackaite recruited 543 students from universities in Berlin and had them complete three different tests. First, participants were asked to add up five two-digit numbers without using a calculator; there were 50 problems, and the students had five minutes to complete them. They were also tasked with building as many German words as possible from the letters ADEHINRSTU within the course of five minutes. For the last test, the students were given “cognitive reflection” problems in which the most intuitive answer is not the right one—problems like, “A bat and a ball cost 1.10 euros in total. The bat costs 1.00 euro more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?” (Spoiler: the answer is not 0.10 euros.)
The experimenters conducted 24 sessions, each including 23 to 25 participants. The tasks did not change between testing periods, but the temperature of the room did; for each session, the temperature was set somewhere between roughly 61- and 91-degrees Fahrenheit. Though Chang and Kajackaite did not observe any meaningful relationship between temperature and performance on the cognitive reflection test, they did find that women did better on the math and verbal tasks when the testing room was warmer.
An increase in temperature of just 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit was associated with a 1.76 percent increase in the number of math questions that female participants answered correctly—which may not seem like a lot, but it is nearly half of the four percent performance gap that exists between male and female high school students on the math section of the SAT, as the Atlantic’s Olga Khazan notes.
Increasing the temperature by 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit also boosted women’s performance on the verbal task by around one percent. Men, on the other hand, performed more poorly on the math and verbal tests in warmer temperatures, though the decrease was not as significant as the increase in female performance.
Intriguingly, as the study authors note, women’s enhanced cognitive performance in warmer environments seemed to be driven by the fact that they were answering more of the test questions; the dip in male cognitive performance, on the other hand, was linked to a decrease in the number of questions answered. “We interpret this as evidence that the increased performance is driven in part by an increase in effort,” the researchers write. “Similarly, the decrease in male cognitive performance is partially driven by a decrease in observable effort.”
Why were the female participants trying harder in a warmer room? It’s hard to say for certain, but Kajackaite tells Veronique Greenwood of the New York Times that the students might simply have felt better, which in turn prompted them to exert more effort. “On a good day, you will try more,” Kajackaite explains. “On a bad day, you will try less.”
There are some caveats to the study, including the fact that the pool of participants, though large, was made up solely of college students. The research is, in other words, not representative of the age and education level of the general population. Further investigations are needed to get a more complete sense of how temperature impacts cognitive performance.
But for now, the study suggests that dismantling the “thermostat patriarchy” is about more than fostering women’s comfort—it’s also a question of productivity.