People, Places, and Things

The psychology of design: How to create an environment in which you will thrive

Talking Temperature

Temperature influences how our minds work!

We’re moving into the hottest part of the summer in the Northern Hemisphere and the coolest days of the winter in the southern half of the world, so temperature is top of mind with many of us at the moment. As people in homes and workplaces planet-wide struggle for control of the thermostat, aiming to set the air conditioning and heating so that they’re “just right,” now is a good time to look at what we know about air temperature.

We do feel significantly cooler when in a space filled with cool colors and warmer in one that features warm ones, but what else have researchers learned about “temperature psychology”?

Temperatures of between 68 and 74 degrees Fahrenheit seem good for our brains. Our cognitive performance is best when air temperatures fall into this range and air humidity is moderate, at 40 to 70 percent. How someone’s dressed and what sort of indoor climate they’re used to determines the particular temperature that’s best for any one person. Since our feet are really sensitive to cold and our heads to heat, it works out well if ambient heaters run through the floor and air conditioners are placed at noggin height.

Physical and social warmth are linked. When we feel a little warmer, we have a more positive opinion of other people (for example, we think they’re more generous and caring) than when we’re thinking about the same people and feel a little cooler—all within a comfortable ambient range, of course. When we’re in a slightly warmer space we feel socially closer to the people around us and are likely to be more generous than if the space is slightly cooler. Music that makes us feel nostalgic also makes us feel slightly warmer, so, music can influence energy used to heat a building.

Each of us seems to have slightly different temperature preferences at different times of the day, so it works out well if people can modify the temperatures they experience at home and at work while they’re there.

Sellaro and her research teammates have determined that we do our best mental work when the temperature in the space where we’re working aligns with the heating/cooling levels we prefer, another reason to make sure space users have control over the temperatures where they are.

Temperature matters. It affects how well we work and socialize with others, for example.  Each of us has a little “temperature diva” inside our psyches—so we’re at our best when we can influence the temperature of the space where we are.

Sally Augustin, Ph.D., is a practicing environmental psychologist who studies person-centered design and sensory science.

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