Thermostat Wars

Debates on where to set the thermostat can be quite heated - for good reasons.

Posted Oct 29, 2013

As the seasons change, debates in homes and offices turn to where to set the thermostat. These heated discussions continue indefinitely.

From a psychological perspective, what should the temperature be inside a building?

Research indicates that for performance and well-being, setting the temperature in the low to mid-70s is best - but the actual perceived experience of thermal conditions depends on much more than just a number on the thermostat. Humidity and air movement have a dramatic effect on responses to indoor (and outdoor) temperatures. So, of course, do other factors such as clothing and body composition (muscle vs. fat) and location in a space. Even the colors used in a space influence its apparent temperature—we feel significantly warmer in spaces that are painted warm colors and cooler in ones painted cool colors. 

Being in a space at a particular temperature is one of those situations where reality can take a back seat to perceptions of reality. If people are generally comfortable in a space, they will come to believe that the temperature is pleasant there, even when it travels from the expected levels. Prior experience changes expectations of how warm or cold people expect to be in particular spaces. People raised in different eras, with varying types of heating systems and energy costs, anticipate different temperatures in their homes and workplaces. The temperatures that we find acceptable may also differ because of opinions on issues such as energy use - some of us may be more tolerant of, and happy/productive in, temperatures outside those usually endorsed if we are committed to living very environmentally responsible lives or wish to reduce dependence on foreign oil, for example. People not only are concerned about absolute temperatures, but variations in temperatures at different times of the day. As long as those variations are within acceptable (another one of those wishy washy words that indicate that each individual determines this for themselves) bounds, they're desirable psychologically. Changes prevent thermal boredom and if the temperatures experienced inside track with those outside, they should help us keep our circadian rhythms in fine fettle.

People like to feel in control of their physical experiences, and when they do, there are all sorts of positive psychological results. When we're at work, generally we can't set the thermostat and that makes us unhappy, just as it can make us uncomfortable. For psychological reasons, even if not strictly for physical ones, it is important that people be able to personally control their thermal experiences, using fans or whatever local fire codes allow. Windows that can be opened also give people a feeling of control, and in certain climates can be environmentally responsible design choices, as well.

So - where should you set the thermostat? How would the people that share the tempered space with you answer this question? Locking in a temperature that's acceptable to even one person is tricky. Compromising on a single setting for a group requires respect for others and balancing everyone's physical (and psychological) well-being.