War Over the Thermostat

As hundreds of tornadoes blasted across the midwest this past week, the impact of climate change popped up in a more mundane but perhaps significant way in two New York Times articles about room temperature. A recent study found that energy consumption increases as you get older, especially quite old, meaning a lot older than I am right now. Another study showed clearly that women and men perform cognitively very differently depending on the temperature. Both of these studies suggest our battles over the up and down arrows on the thermostat are just beginning.

Over 70? Never Be Without a Snuggie

A study published in Energy Research and Social Science looked at the use of energy stratified by age, including impact from variables of income and housing size. The data from 1987 to 2009 used pseudo-cohorts, a sciency way of saying that the study was designed to look at age groups that changed over time. In other words, they looked at energy consumption by age, and they followed those age groups for about twenty years.

From “Age matters: Ageing and household energy demand in the United States” in Energy Research and Social Science, September 2019

Apparently young people don’t use as much household energy, most likely because they run around and live in small rooms, like dorm rooms. Multi-person families buy bigger houses, so that the entire family uses relatively more energy, which seems to pick near age 50. Energy use then decreases, but starts to drive upward again after age 70.

When the researchers added income to the model, the upward slope tipped even higher, meaning that having more income when you’re older magnified the impact. This wasn’t true for those under age 30, though. Whether income was included or not, people in their twenties don’t use as much energy, whether they can afford it or not. A lot of the increase in use as people get older was due to housing size, though not all of it.

Climate, Age, and Energy use in Energy Research and Social Science, September 2019

The researchers also evaluated local climate impacts. Climate didn’t seem to have as large an impact for groups below age 60, but energy use differed a great deal based on climate and age. Really cold climates led to the highest energy use for those over 60. For those in warm climates, the energy was as low as it was when they were young, although once people started moving into their late 70s, energy use spiked again. I suspect this explains how Sunbirds, who go to Florida and Arizona for the winters, help reduce the world’s energy use. But once they become older than say 75, they might consider someplace that requires less air conditioning.

Gender Temperature Politics

Unfortunately, the Energy Research study did not control for gender distinctions, which might have been a good idea. It’s long been acknowledged that women and men experience temperature differently. Body temperature is based on physical size, body chemistry (i.e. hormones), energy output, and personal exposure. People who are larger will feel warmer because they have less surface area to internal volume. Women undergoing estrogen reduction often feel warmer because estrogen is the body’s temperature regulator. People with a high metabolism tend to have a higher internal temperature than people with low metabolism. And, people who grew up in Alaska or Buffalo will just never feel the cold like those who grew up in California.

Some of these reasons may explain why generally men seem to prefer lower temperatures than women. Whatever the explanation, another study done by USC determined that men and women perform very differently at different temperatures and that may shed light on why the war over the office thermostat is starting to reach a fever peak.

Photo at news.usc.edu

This study in the journal PLOS One, measured how German female and male university students performed on tests–math, verbal, and a cognitive reflection test. Women performed better than men on the tests when the room was warm–over 80 degrees–and poorer when the room was cold–under 70 degrees.

All of a sudden, that 68 F universal thermostat setting, which I grew up learning was the good and proper and patriotic number for the universe, starts to look very suspicious.

From “Battle for the Thermostat: Gender and the effect of Temperature on Cognitive Performance”

The math scores converged at a temperature near 90 degrees (32 Celsius), and the researchers didn’t even seem to measure higher. I wonder what women would score in a room that was set to 95? I know it sounds crazy, but look at the graph in the upper left! Meanwhile, once the temperature went above 72, women flourished on the verbal tests, while men’s scores went down. Women also worked faster, i.e. submitted more answers, and more answers correlated with a better score (not just more wrong answers).

Women’s improvement was also sharper than the men’s deterioration, at small temperature increases. In other words, if you could just bump up that thermostat from 72 to 74, women would function vastly better and men wouldn’t suffer for it.

Hot When it’s Cold and Cold When it’s Hot

Of course, not only do we not live in experimentally-controlled environments, but the variation between out and in drives behavior, too. Snowy places crank the heat up indoors, so it always feels like you continue to melt indoors in Chicago in December, even after you shed all your down thises and wool thats. Meanwhile, the A/C is always full blast in Sacramento in the summer, which feels blissful for the first five minutes and then requires a sweater. Or a parka.

This is why I learned to wear Hawaiian shirts to the symphony in February, because once I climbed up to my cheap balcony seats with the better acoustics, it was pointless to try to keep wearing my nice sweater. Especially for Beethoven or Mahler. Nothing will make a fifty-something-year-old woman more uncomfortable than listening to Mahler in a balcony seat while wearing a wool pullover. I’m starting to glisten just thinking about it.

AWL: Always Wear Layers

One conclusion to draw is that office thermostats are probably set colder than is useful, especially since it seems to trigger many women into hibernation. At the same time, I suggest more carrying of layers, regardless of the time of year and venue.

What we know is that even in California in autumn, a houseful of women will generally live by their blankees.

California can be a land of insufficient sunshine. Photo by kajmeister.

Leave a Reply