Do office temperatures affect cognitive performance?

It’s summer and temperatures are on the rise. Sometimes the heat makes us feel less “productive,” or like we’re moving in “slow motion.” A German-American study recently looked at the effects of temperature variation on cognitive performance in men and women. Who performs better when the mercury climbs above 90°?

As Tom Y. Chang (a researcher at the Marshall School of Business) and Agne Kajackaite (researcher at the Berlin Social Center) point out, while there’s much debate about whether or not women prefer higher indoor temperatures, until now, no one had explored the link between temperature variation and cognitive performance in the two sexes. The researchers wanted to fill this gap by conducting a large-scale experiment on more than 500 people. Specifically, they asked 542 students in Berlin (average age = 24.6 years), of whom 223 were women. Of course, while university students make practical subjects, they aren't representative of the population in terms of age and education.

The participants were asked to perform a set of mathematical, verbal, and logic tasks. In the first task, they had to mentally add five two-digit numbers. They were given 50 of these operations and had five minutes to carry out as many operations as possible. In the second task, the subjects were again given 5 minutes to create the most (German) words possible using ten letters (A, D, E, H, I, N, R, S, T, U). In the final task, they had to answer questions where the intuitive answer is incorrect. For example: “A bat and a ball cost a total of $1.10.” The bat cost $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?”

During the experimental sessions, while the students were carrying out various tasks, the researchers varied the temperature from 16.19 to 32.57°C (61.14 to 90.63°F). How did the heat variations affect cognitive performance in men vs. women?

The researchers did indeed see differences in performance. As the temperature rose, women performed better on mathematical and verbal tasks, while the opposite effect was seen in men. As temperature increased, women responded correctly to 1.76% more math questions and 1.03% more verbal questions; scores for men decreased for these same tasks (by 0.63% and 0.6% respectively). It is important to note that while the differences weren't statistically significant, the increase in female performance at high temperatures is considerably larger than the decrease in male performance. However, temperature had no effect on success rates for the logic task.

Overall, these results suggest that women's cognitive performance is higher in warmer rooms, while men are more productive at lower temperatures.

Setting the office thermostat isn’t going to be easy!
Source: Chang TY, Kajackaite A. “Battle for the thermostat: Gender and the effect of temperature on cognitive performance”, in PLoS ONE, May 2019

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