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Research of the Month: Settling the office thermostat war – what made this PLoS ONE paper so hot?

Guest Author, 27th June 2019

In another of our monthly blog post written by Science Wordsmith Lucy Goodchild, we explore the findings and attention around a piece of research published in the previous month that caught the public’s attention. Listen to the accompanying podcast here.

It’s the bane of the office worker’s day: the inevitable disagreement about the temperature in the room. Feeling hot? Open a window and jumpers may be pulled on passive-aggressively. Too cold? That heater you’re hiding under the desk might get your neighbour into a sweat.

We’ve known for a while that people have different preferences when it comes to the temperature of their working environment, and there have been indications that women really do like it hot. But until recently, all the evidence had been survey-based, with people reporting their preferences. What’s the real story behind the thermostat wars, and does temperature affect performance?

Read the study: “Battle for the thermostat: Gender and the effect of temperature on cognitive performance

This is where the behavioural economists come in – with experiments to settle the debate. In their paper in PLoS ONE, Dr. Tom Chang of USC Marshall School of Business in Los Angeles, USA, and Dr. Agne Kajackaite of the WZB Berlin Social Science Center in Berlin, Germany, explore how men and women perform at different temperatures by giving them different cognitive tests.

“We wanted to look at whether it’s only a matter of preference for temperature or whether it’s also something that affects performance,” said Dr. Kajackaite. “We decided to do it in the lab – that’s what we do, we’re behavioural economists – and we looked at various temperatures to see how it affects performance.”

Dr. Agne Kajackaite, WZB Berlin Social Science Center, Germany

Finding the sweet spot

Dr. Kajackaite and Dr. Chang moved the temperature in their lab on a continuum between 16 and 32 degrees Celcius and set participants three tasks to do at the different temperatures. The first was a simple maths test: to add together two digits without a calculator and do as many of these sums as they could in five minutes. The second was a verbal test: to build as many words as they could out of ten letters. The third was a logic task called a cognitive reflection test.

“This test is very popular in social psychology and behavioural economics; it consists of some tricky questions which require logical thinking,” explained Dr. Kajackaite. “For example, a bat and a ball cost $1.10 together, and the bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much is the ball? People come to the wrong answer if they answer too quickly.”

They carried out these experiments with 543 people and found that the effect of temperature on performance was the opposite for men and women. While temperature didn’t seem to affect anyone’s performance in the cognitive reflection test, women performed much better in the math and verbal tasks at warmer temperatures and men performed worse as the dial went up. For every degree warmer, women performed 1.76 percent better on average and men performed 0.6 percent worse.

But does this mean we should be turning up the thermostat? “No, not necessarily, we can’t conclude the perfect temperature from just one study,” said Dr. Kajackaite. “What we can say, though, is that it’s not just a matter of comfort or preference, it’s really about performance. So managers and teachers should pay attention – if people are asking for the temperature to be adjusted, that’s a good idea because it really can affect performance.”

Reflecting reality

The findings confirm what we’ve long thought to be true, and the media got excited immediately. Timepublished“The Debate Over Office Temperatures Just Heated Up, Thanks to a New Study”; newser claimed “Office Temperatures Really Are ‘Sexist’”; and The Atlanticproclaimed: “Frigid Offices Might Be Killing Women’s Productivity” – going on to say “If ‘I told you so’ had a sensation, it would be the sweet cocoon of an 80-degree workspace.”

The story’s familiarity propelled it around the world, with more than 180 news outlets reporting on the study, resulting in an Altmetric attention score of over 2,200.

Discover the coverage:

“Everybody can relate to this topic, everybody can say something about it,” said Dr. Kajackaite. “And it’s a big topic; here in Germany it’s not too cold in the office, but in the US it’s crazy cold. There’s even something called women’s winter – when women arrive at the office in summer clothes but it’s so cold they feel like it’s winter. When I presented the findings at a conference in Abu Dhabi recently, people were coming up to me and thanking me for the evidence they could use at home for making it warmer in the house.”

The coverage was instigated: armed with a familiar topic, they worked with the press office at USC Marshall to issue a press release, and the team there promoted the story and fielded requests. The journal also sent out a press release, and WZB issued a German version for the local press.

One of the outcomes is that they’re now prepared for the next time their work is picked up. As they spoke to journalists in the days and weeks after their paper came out, Dr. Kajackaite and Dr. Chang collected names and contact details, noting which journalists wanted to be contacted with the results of new studies.

They knew the findings would be popular, but they didn’t expect to be interviewed on the BBC and on Fox News. “It was overwhelming, but Tom and I are both doing our parts and supporting each other and working hard,” said Dr. Kajackaite. “As economics researchers we usually publish our studies in the economics journals, but they don’t reach the media and the public. It was great to have an impact with this, and hopefully things will change, hopefully people will pay more attention to temperature.”

Dr. Kajackaite’s top tip for promoting research

“It’s very simple: just ask your press office. To get media coverage you need the contacts, and that’s what press offices have. I now have a big list of journalists who have asked me to send them my next story – you need a foot in the door, and the press office can give you that. You also need a catchy topic, of course. You can have the best press release, but if the topic isn’t interesting for a general audience it won’t be popular.”

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