Men and women to your corners of the ring – it’s time for the winter rounds of the thermostat wars. Who wins the fight in your home?
The answer to that depends on whether you are the man or the woman of the house, according to a new study published Wednesday in the journal PLOS.
“It seems like in some cases there’s a dynamic where one person is responsible or takes ownership over the thermostat and other people don’t get to have input into that,” said lead author Nicole Sintov, assistant professor of behavior, decision-making and sustainability at Ohio State University.
“We had roommates in the study, we had spouses, we had couples who were not spouses,” said Sintov, who studies how people make decisions that affect the environment, a field called conservation psychology. “And we do see that gender plays a significant role here.”
The study found men thought any discussion about setting the home’s temperature lower or higher was a “compromise” or an “agreement.”
Women, on the other hand, thought some of those same conversations were “conflicts.”
“It’s possible that women are losing the thermostat battle,” said Sintov. “This hints at a status quo gender bias in thermostat settings that leads to a home thermal environment that does not cater to womens’ preferences.”
‘Sexist’ temperature wars
When you look at the battle over temperature, you’ll find most women at the warmer end facing off against the often chilly preferences of men on the opposite side of the war zone.
Of course these are basic norms. There are plenty of women who love the cold and men who hate it. Preferences could be due to temperatures where a person grew up and what they are used to; body mass; or even medical conditions that make one person more or less sensitive to temperature changes.
Clothing norms at work could also explain some of the differences, experts say; men who are in full suits made of wool, even if it’s lightweight, have more of their bodies covered than women in skirts and blouses.
According to a 2015 paper, temperatures in office buildings appear to be based on the heat needs of a 40-year-old, 154-pound man.
That gender bias actually has an effect on worker productivity.
Prior studies have shown that women perform at higher levels on mental tasks when they are warmer, while men tend to function better at a cooler temperature.
One study tested verbal and math skills of Berlin college students and found that increasing the temperature from the 60s to the 70s Fahrenheit improved female math scores by 15%. Men’s scores dropped by 3% with the same temperature variation. Clothing didn’t explain the differences – both sexes wore T-shirts and shorts during the exams.
Gender differences in temperature even play out in politics.
When Democratic challenger Cynthia Nixon was preparing for her debate with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2016, her team asked the television station hosting the event to warm the debate hall to 76 degrees Fahrenheit, saying working conditions were “notoriously sexist when it comes to room temperature,” according to an email obtained by the New York Times.
It turns out that Cuomo was infamous for preferring “freezing” temperatures, according to the Times. When he delivered his State of the State speech in 2011, the paper reported there were hats and scarves in the crowd at the Empire State Plaza convention center, even a ski parka.
“My feet were like two blocks of ice,” New York State Senator Diane J. Savino told the paper at the time. “I actually think he would’ve gotten more applause for some of the things he said, but people were sitting on their hands to keep them warm.”
Thermostat wars in the home
Offices and convention centers are one thing – there’s usually not a thermostat readily available for men to turn down and women to turn up. Homes, however, are a different matter.
How people interact around an energy decision in a household has not been examined before, Sintov said, adding that her study was a starting point.
“We typically examine energy use or bills for the entire household to gain insights into how consumers are using energy in a home,” she said. “We really wanted to know how thermostat settings get chosen; how discussions and negotiations among household members go down.”
Sintov and her team asked adults in 112 homes in Ohio to complete a survey and journal daily for one to two weeks about interactions and behaviors on adjusting the dwelling’s thermostat.
The journals revealed that when agreements and compromises occurred, the thermostat was more likely to be adjusted. However, when conflicts occurred, the temperature was less likely to be changed.
“This could be because women participants in our study objectively experienced more conflicts than did men participants,” Sintov said. “Alternatively, there may be differences in how the genders interpreted discussions. We can’t answer this question conclusively with the current data, but future work should certainly look into this.”
The study only looked at homes with male and female occupants, so how this would impact other gender identities or living arrangements was not addressed.
Not funny at all
Heating and cooling combined comprised 32% of US residential energy consumption in 2015, the study points out, while available data from 2010 estimates the number is 41% worldwide.
So while we might chuckle about the gender fisticuffs around the home thermostat, the topic really isn’t funny at all, Sintov said.
“Heating and cooling typically consumes quite a substantial portion of the energy use from a home, so that’s a huge target for achieving energy savings,” she said. “This is a really preliminary peek into what’s happening in the home and the dynamics of these interactions.
“And so we certainly need more work to be done so we can determine how best to achieve energy savings while keeping people comfortable.”