The temperature of air surrounding us has a dramatic effect on how we experience a space and what we do/think while we’re in it. The highlights of neuroscience research on our “best temperatures,” how design can influence how warm/cold we think a space is, and why ambient temperature matters at all are reviewed here.
For more information on neuroscience research related to air temperature, read this article.
Any why does any of this matter? One reason why we need to consider temperature: Erkan (2021) investigated how temperature influences “architectural liking.” Study participants experienced “a virtual reality environment at three different temperatures (15°C, 22°C, 30°C). . . . An EEG device was used to determine the cognitive activities of the participants during space navigation. In addition, an eye-tracking device was used in virtual reality goggles to identify the areas that participants were looking at. It was determined that the architectural preferences of the people changed depending on the temperature of the space. . . . The architectural liking score average was at the lowest at the temperature of 30°C. The architectural liking average was higher at the 15°C temperature than the architectural liking at the 30°C, but lower than that of 22°C.”
Temperatures at Work
- Temperatures between 68 to 74 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity levels from forty to seventy percent generally seem to optimize our cognitive performance (Baker and Bernstein, 2012).
- Kimura and colleagues (2020) investigated the effects of temperature on mental performance, confirming that people do not process information as effectively as they get warmer. The researchers “recorded [participants’] subjective rating of mental workload. . . . participants were asked to read some texts and answer questions related to those texts. Room temperature (18 [64 F], 22 [72 f], 25 [77 F] or 29 ℃ [84 F]) and humidity (50%) were manipulated. . . . results suggest that mental workload, especially implicit mental workload, increases in warmer environments.”
- Sellaro and team have learned that our professional performance is best when we’re in a space that aligns with the temperatures we prefer (Sellaro, Hommel, Manai, and Colzato 2015). This finding fine tunes knowledge derived from previous studies investigating the optimal temperature for workplaces. The researchers determined that “subjective preferences are more reliable predictors of performance than objective temperature and that performing under the preferred temperature may counteract ‘ego-depletion’ (i.e., reduced self-control after an exhausting cognitive task) when substantial cognitive control is required.” People in the study indicated their preference for cool or warm temperatures and completed the test tasks in spaces that were cool (59 degrees Fahrenheit), warm (77 degrees Fahrenheit), or a neutral temperature (68 degrees Fahrenheit). Participants did their best cognitive work in the spaces that aligned with their preferred temperature (i.e., people who preferred cool temperatures did best in the space that was 59 degrees Fahrenheit).
- Al Horr and team completed an extensive literature review to learn more about how workplace design contributes to worker productivity (Al Horr, Arif, Kaushik, Mazroei, Katafygiotou, and Elsarrg 2016). After reviewing over 300 papers, they found that “eight Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) factors . . . influence occupant productivity in an office environment.” The investigators defined productivity as “the ratio of output to input,” so more sophisticated measures of employee performance are generally not discussed. Nonetheless, the list of important factors affecting workers’ productivity identified can inform employee-supportive workplace planning. The factors linked to satisfaction and productivity by Al Horr and colleagues were: indoor air quality and ventilation, thermal comfort, lighting and day lighting, noise and acoustics, office layout, biophilia and views, look and feel, and location and amenities. “Look and feel” includes onsite aesthetics, such as colors and textures in use, floor plans, and the brand message conveyed, for example. The effects of the eight factors are interrelated: “Daylighting has direct interaction with thermal state of an office. . . . A decrease in temperature leads to improved occupant perception of indoor air quality. Similarly, there is a crossover between daylighting and ‘look’ and outside views. . . . Also, the layout of an office can have an impact on its acoustic properties.” In addition, “culture and values (organisational, national) have implicit effect on characteristics and norms of indoor environment quality. This also influences occupant productivity.”
- Gupta and colleagues (2018) analyzed data from two case studies to identify relationships between workplace design and productivity. The investigators found that “There is a clear link between occupants’ perception of their environment and their perceived productivity. When they felt too warm or too cold, they perceived their productivity to be negatively affected. When they perceived their air to be stuffy, they also perceived their productivity to be negatively affected. . . . Task performance can be considered as a proxy measurement for productivity. Performance was found to be negatively affected by high temperatures (particularly over 26 degrees C during the non-heating season), low RH [relative humidity] (particularly below 40%) and high CO2 concentration (particularly above 1000 ppm).”
- Research conducted by Chang and Kajackaite (2019) indicates that the cognitive performance of men and women is not affected in the same ways by high and low temperatures (during the research process test area temperatures varied from 16.19 to 32.57 degrees Celsius). Chang and Kajackaite report that they studied “performance in math, verbal and cognitive reflection tasks and find that the effects of temperature vary significantly across men and women. At higher temperatures, women perform better on a math and verbal task while the reverse effect is observed for men. . . . temperature has no impact on a measure of cognitive reflection for either gender. Our findings suggest that gender mixed workplaces may be able to increase productivity by setting the thermostat higher than current standards.” More details on cognitive reflection tests: these are logic-type word problems, “the questions are such that the intuitive answer is the wrong answer.” In summary, “Taken together, these results show that within a temperature range of 16 and 33 degrees Celsius, females generally exhibit better cognitive performance at the warmer end of the temperature distribution while men do better at colder temperatures.”
- Women prefer warmer ambient temperatures than men (Hedge, 1982). Hedge reports that in workplaces the “comfortable temperature range for men was 20 [68 degrees Fahrenheit] - 21 degrees C [70 degrees F], whereas for women this was 23 [73 degrees F] -24 degrees C [75 degrees F].”
- Yang and teammates (2020) probed optimal office temperatures when people are working while sitting, standing, or walking at a slow pace at a treadmill desk. They learned that when “subjects were exposed to four ambient temperatures (20 (68 degrees Fahrenheit), 23 (73 degrees F), 26 (79 degrees F), 29 °C (84 degrees F)) while conducting four activities (sitting, standing, walking at 1.0 km/h, and walking at 2.0 km/h). . . . The 80% acceptable temperature range varied from 20.5 to 28.2 °C for sitting and standing, 20.0–26.9 °C for walking 1 km/h, and 17.6–26 °C for walking 2 km/h. . . . Based on our findings, a temperature zone ranging from 20.5 to 26 °C is seen to satisfy the summer thermal requirements for over 80% of occupants in a space containing a combination of sitting, standing, and treadmill workstations. However, providing personal comfort control would be necessary, given the substantial inter-individual differences. . . . The 23 °C condition seems to be the only temperature that could maintain reasonable comfort and acceptability for all activities.”
- Shahzad and colleagues have collected additional evidence indicating that providing individuals with control over the temperature in their workplaces is a good idea (Shahzad, Brennan, and Theodossopoulos, 2014). The research team found that “the thermal preference of occupants [during any particular workday] is subject to change. . . . individual thermal control in the workplace is more likely to increase user comfort and satisfaction.” They learned that “Over half of . . . [study participants] did not have a steady thermal preference during the day, preferring different thermal settings at different times.” Data were collected in cellular offices where workers had “control over a window, heating and cooling” and in open offices “with limited operable windows for users seated around the perimeter of the building.”
Temperatures in Other Locations
- Cooler, but still comfortable, store temperatures encourage the sale of more expensive items (Spence, Puccinelli, Grewalm and Roggeveen, 2014). Spence and team report that “recent research [shows] that colder ambient temperatures tend to lead to more emotional decision making and greater preference for hedonic [pleasure-based] options while warmer stores lead to more cognitive decision making and greater preference for utilitarian options.”
- Lee, Rotman, and Perkins (2014) found that “consumers perceived ambient temperature to be significantly lower when eating alone compared to eating with a partner” and “physically cooler individuals desired a social consumption setting, whereas physically warmer individuals desired a lone consumption setting [in other words the colder people wanted to be with others while the reverse was true for warmer people]. . . . We interpret these results within the context of self-regulation, such that perceived physical temperature deviations from a steady state unconsciously motivate the individual to find bodily balance in order to alleviate that deviation.”
- Zhong and Leonardelli found that people who are socially excluded are literally cold (2008). Study participated estimated the temperature of the room that they were in as 70 after being excluded and 75 when they weren’t. People may feel socially excluded in workplaces if they do not mesh socially with their colleagues, for example.
- Bargh and Meinkoff (2019) review the research linking the experiences of physical and social warmth. As they report, citing a number of studies, “after holding a warm beverage, participants reported feeling closer to the significant others in their life compared to participants who had just held a cold beverage. . . . participants’ [hospital patients’] body temperatures, [were] taken by nurses. . . . the higher their body temperature, within normal range, the closer they felt [to other people]. . . . participants’ tympanic [in ear] temperature . . . covaried with feelings of social connectedness. The same effect held in the field. . . . on days when the participants reported feeling physically warmer (independently of the actual outdoor temperature), they also rated themselves as more interpersonally warm and agreeable. . . . an experience of social coldness (being rejected by others) caused participants to actually become colder – their body temperatures decreased 0.6 of a degree on average following the rejection experience.”
Decision-Making at Different Temperatures
- Temperature influences decision-making. Working with people experiencing temperatures perceived as comfortable, Hadi and team (2015) learned that “cold (warm) temperatures may lead individuals to rely more (less) on emotions when making decisions.” So, when cold people are more likely to make emotion-based decisions and the reverse is true for those who are warm. Also, “individuals spontaneously rely more or less on affect [emotion] when feeling uncomfortably cold or warm, respectively . . . which ultimately influences consequential downstream variables (e.g., willingness to pay). . . . This effect holds in response to both tactile [skin contact] . . . and ambient [air] . . . temperature exposure and is most exaggerated at extreme temperatures.”
- Syndicus, Wiese, and van Treeck also studied how temperature influences decision making, finding that at warmer temperatures people seem to take more risks (2018). The team reports that when “two groups . . . completed . . . tasks either in a warm (≥ 30°C) or neutral (≤ 25°C) ambient temperature condition. Participants made significantly riskier decisions in the warm ambient temperature condition. . . . Especially elevated ambient temperatures should, therefore, be monitored in office environments to prevent impairments of decision making.”
- People are more likely to go along with the opinion of others when they feel comfortably warm than when they’re comfortably cool (Huang, Zhang, Hui, and Wyer, 2012).
- When we are exposed to cues that make us think about being warm, we’re more apt to behave impulsively (whether we actually feel warm or not) than we do when we’re given cues that make us think about being cold (Ahn and Mazar, 2012). Ahn and Mazar determined that “marketers could make systematic use of various temperature-primes [i.e., cues] (e.g., through color, words, or pictures in ads or on packaging) to promote, for example, higher willingness to pay as well as shortsighted and risky decisions – ranging from substantive decisions about investment products to more trivial decisions about everyday household products. . . . Participants in our hot (vs. cold) conditions generally indicated a higher willingness to pay for products, were more likely to choose smaller-sooner rewards, were more risk-seeking, and were more likely to give an incorrect answer to a question with an intuitive but wrong answer.” Multiple metaphors associate heat and cold with impulsive and reasoned actions, respectively.
- Yang and Moon (2018) investigated relationships between light intensity, temperature, and other environment-based factors. They determined that when “The cross-modal effects of desk surface illuminance (150, 500, and 1000 lx) and room temperature (20, 25, and 30 degrees C) on indoor environmental perception were investigated in an indoor environment chamber. . . . The highest visual relaxation of eyes was at 25 degrees C and 500 lux. . . . The environment was considered dimmer at 25 degrees C than it was at 20 degrees C, which was consistent with Laurentin et al. (with electric lighting) and Ishii and Horikoshi. The environment was perceived more [visually] relaxing at 25 degrees C than at 30 degrees C.”
- Bourikas and colleagues (2021) report interesting relationships between perceptions of various aspects of office environments. Their work indicates that “bad air quality is generally associated with a ‘warm’ thermal sensation response. . . . air quality . . . and noise perception (NSV) are both correlated with thermal perception (TSV). . . . Air quality perception was correlated with both TSV and NSV .. . . participants who were feeling uncomfortable (in particular if feeling warm and preferring to be cooler) perceived the air-quality worse than participants who felt comfortable.”
- Garreton, Rodriguez, and Pattini found links between perceived indoor temperatures and impressions of visual glare (2016). As they report “volunteers . . . performed an office-like computer task. Three scenarios with sunspots over the desk were evaluated: a cold scenario, a comfortable scenario and a hot scenario. . . . the perceived temperature affected glare predictions. . . . when participants were out of their thermal comfort zones, their actual glare sensation (GSV) did not match that of the predictive glare model (DGP). While the DGP index considered the glare environment of the three scenarios as ‘noticeable’, the GSV scale considered the SUMMER-28 scenario as ‘disturbing’, the WINTER-20 scenario was rated as ‘noticeable’ and the WINTER-13 scenario as ‘imperceptible’. . . . The SUMMER-28 scenario was mostly rated as warm, the WINTER-20 scenario was evaluated as thermally neutral and the WINTER-13 was evaluated as slightly cool and cool.” In short, “when participants were exposed to a hot environment, the probability of occurrence of discomfort glare was more than 2.5 times higher in relation to a thermally comfortable environment.” In the WINTER-13 scenario temperatures were around 13 degrees Centigrade, during the WINTER-20 one temperatures were about 20 degrees Centigrade, and for the Summer-28 scenario, temperatures were around 28 degrees Centigrade.
- Lefebvre and Biswas (2019) studied links between environmental odors, perceived temperature, and food consumption. They found via field and lab experiments that “the presence of a warm ambient odor (e.g., cedarwood) versus a cool ambient odor (e.g., eucalyptus) reduces the amount of calories consumed and also leads to increased choice of lower-calorie food options. This is attributable to established implicit associations formed from the human body’s innate physiological response to changes in ambient temperature. Specifically, exposure to a warm (vs. cool) ambient odor influences perceived ambient temperature, which in turn alters food consumption behaviors. . . . warm (cool) odor leads to perceptions of warmer (cooler) ambient temperature. . . . if restaurants intend to make their customers eat more, a tempting option is to rely heavily on air-conditioning to make the ambience be perceived as colder. The findings of our studies suggest that instead of using more electricity/energy in running the air-conditioners at colder levels, a more effective, cheaper, and environmentally friendly option would be to use ambient odor.”
- Room temperatures of around 65 degrees are optimal for sleepers—at that temperature the quality of our sleep is best according to the research-based website of the National Sleep Foundation (https://sleepfoundation.org/bedroom/touch.php). Sleep apnea complicates the optimal sleeping temperature discussion. As Valham, Sahlin, Stenlund, and Franklin (2012) report: “Untreated patients with obstructive sleep apnea sleep longer, have better sleep efficiency, and are more alert in the morning after a night’s sleep at 16°C (61 degrees Fahrenheit) room temperature compared with 24°C (75 degrees Fahrenheit), but obstructive sleep apnea is more severe at 16°C and 20°C (68 degrees Fahrenheit) compared with 24°C.”
Altering Perceptions of Temperatures
Cognitive science research on air temperatures has implications for not only the actual temperatures set in particular areas, but also for other environmental decisions, such as colors selected for spaces.
- Research has shown, for example, that people feel warmer in spaces that are painted warm colors and cooler in ones painted cool colors and Research Design Connections reported on this association here. Mehta and team (2012) confirmed that seeing warm colors make people feel warmer, while cool colors have the reverse effect. In addition, views of warm colors were linked to volunteering time to a charitable project while seeing cooler colors were tied to monetary contributions. Colors were presented on a computer screen that was either a warm color (yellow) or a cool color (blue).
- Huebner and teammates (2016) investigated links between the color temperature of the ceiling light in a room and perceived temperature. They “compared comfort ratings and changes in clothing level [whether people put on more clothes, such as a sweater] under light with a colour temperature of 2700 K [relatively warmer light color] vs. 6500 K [relatively cooler light color]. . . . self-report and observation indicated higher comfort under the low colour temperature. . . . In Study 1 . . .. [the researchers generally found] higher ‘[thermal] comfort ratings’ under the warm light of 2700 K than under the cold light of 6500 K. In Study 2, participants put on significantly more items of clothing under cold light than warm light.” Light intensity noted on participants’ work plane/surface was “550 lux for 2700 K, and 495 lux for 6500 K. The difference . . . [is] highly unlikely to have a considerable effect on perception.” Temperatures in the test area were 20 - 24 degrees Centigrade, and this temperature range “encompasses the range of temperatures usually found in offices.” Relative humidity was 50% in the test area and air velocity was too low to be perceived. Study participants were men and women, 18 - 35 years old.
- Omidvar and Brambilla (2021) confirm that colors seen influence thermal experiences. They report that “Artificial lights categorized in the range of daylight (5000 K–6500 K) seem to cause less physiological stimulation and consequently less manipulation of thermal perception. . . .2800 K light stimulates more physiological processes and induces a more incredible feeling of warmth than 6500 K light. . . . changing the interior light colour could change the skin temperature between 0.3 and 0.8°.. . . People are much more sensitive to changes in the colour of light in warm environments.” The researchers recommend neutral white light for warm areas and 4000 K and 2800 K lighting in cool areas to increase user comfort.
- Chinazzo and colleagues (2021) confirm links previously noted between colors seen and perceived temperature. The researchers report that participants in their study experienced “three colored [window] glazing (orange/blue/neutral). . . . Daylight color significantly affected thermal perception. . . the orange daylight led to warmer thermal perception in (close-to-) comfortable temperatures, resulting in a color-induced thermal perception and indicating that orange glazing should be used with caution in a slightly warm environment. Findings can be applied to the design of buildings using new glazing technologies with saturated colors, such as transparent photovoltaics.”
- Researchers have quantified how the amount of natural light flowing into a space influences the temperature that people believe it is in that area. Chinazzo, Weingold, and Andersen (2019) studied “three levels of daylight illuminance (low ~130 lx, medium ~600 lx, and high ~1400 lx) with three temperature levels (19, 23, 27 degrees C). . . . Results indicate that the quantity of daylight influence the thermal perceptions of people . . . with a low daylight illuminance leading to a less comfortable and less acceptable thermal environment in cold conditions and to a more comfortable one in warm conditions. No effect on their physiological responses [skin temperature] was observed.” In summary, “participants reported being more thermally comfortable in a high illuminance level compared to a low one in a cold condition (19 °C), whereas in a slightly warm environment (27 °C), participants indicated being more thermally comfortable under the low illuminance level compared to the high one. . . . the thermal environment was less acceptable under low illuminance condition compared to both the medium and the high levels.” For this study, daylighting levels inside the area where data were collected were modified via filters placed over windows to the outdoors and information was collected after study participants had been in the test area for 30 minutes. Daylighting intensity should, to the extent possible, be managed to support desired thermal experiences.
- Research by Jin, Jin, and Kang (2020) confirms that there are complex interrelationships between our sensory experiences. The trio probed how hearing various sounds at different volumes influences perceived environmental temperatures. They determined via a lab-based study that “acoustic evaluations were significantly higher for birdsong and slow-dance music than for dog barking, conversation, and traffic sound. . . . In summer, birdsong and slow-dance music effectively improved subjects’ thermal evaluations, while a high sound level of dog barking, conversation, and traffic sound resulted in a decrease; in the transition season, all types of sounds resulted in a decline in the thermal evaluations; meanwhile, in winter and summer, dog barking, conversation, traffic sound and slow-dance music at the low sound level produced higher thermal comfort and thermal acceptability. In terms of the overall evaluations, birdsong and slow-dance music at the low sound level improved overall comfort, while dog barking, conversation, and traffic sound resulted in a significant decrease. For dog barking, conversation, traffic sound and fast-dance music, the overall evaluations at the low sound level were higher than those at the high sound level.”
- Crosby, Newsham, Veitch, Rogak, and Rysanek (2019) studied perceptions of temperatures in open plan offices. They found that “The judgment of thermal comfort is a cognitive process which is influenced by physical, psychological and other factors. Prior studies have shown that occupants, who are generally satisfied with many non-thermal conditions of indoor environmental quality, are more likely to be satisfied with thermal conditions as well. This paper presents a novel approach that considers the effect of non-thermal building environmental design conditions, such as indoor air quality and noise levels, on perceived thermal comfort in open-plan offices. . . . [in] open-plan offices throughout Canada and the US. . . . The Bayesian inference analysis reveals that the occupant's thermal dissatisfaction is influenced by many non-thermal IEQ conditions, such as indoor CO2 concentrations and the satisfaction with the office lighting intensity.”
- Meng, Yan, and Liu (2022) evaluated how living walls and HVAC systems together influence human experience of place. They report that “Two identical rooms were built to analyze the efficiency of combining a living wall with air-conditioning. One room contained a living wall and air-conditioning, while the other room only with air-conditioning was served as a reference. The indoor thermal environment and CO2 concentration were monitored. . . . combining the living wall [with air-conditioning] lowered the relative humidity by 2.6%, maintained the indoor air speed at 0.20 m/s~0.30 m/s and reduced the CO2 concentration by approximately 10%, while it increased the uniformity of these environmental parameters. The average skin temperature in the room with the living wall was 0.2°C higher than that in the referred room and closer to the neutral mean skin temperature. The living wall significantly improved the subjective evaluation of indoor environment, especially in air movement and air freshness, with the thermal comfort level [also improving].” The living wall contained ivy and was 1 meter long, 0.3 meters wide and 2 meters high.” For more information on living walls, read this article, for example.
- Spence (2020) investigated how temperature is linked to the experience of other sensory stimuli. His review of the literature indicates that “The last few years have seen an explosive growth of research interest in the crossmodal correspondences, the sometimes surprising associations that people experience between stimuli, attributes, or perceptual dimensions, such as between auditory pitch and visual size, or elevation. . . . I take a closer look at temperature-based correspondences. The empirical research not only supports the existence of robust crossmodal correspondences between temperature and colour (as captured by everyday phrases such as 'red hot') but also between temperature and auditory pitch. Importantly, such correspondences have (on occasion) been shown to influence everything from our thermal comfort in coloured environments through to our response to the thermal and chemical warmth associated with stimulation of the chemical senses, as when eating, drinking, and sniffing olfactory stimuli.”
For more information on how humidity influences experience, head this article.
A Useful Resource
The Center for the Built Environment at the University of California Berkeley, makes available free of charge the CBE Thermal Comfort Tool (https://cbe.berkeley.edu/research/cbe-thermal-comfort-tool/). The CBE team describes why their tool is useful: they “developed a number of features that are important for practitioners: (a) ability to compare two or three thermal comfort scenarios (compare tool); (b) ability to plot how the comfort area changes in the psychrometric chart when clothing, metabolic activity, air velocity or mean radiant temperature are varied within a given range.” Videos providing tips on using the Thermal Comfort Tool are available. Additional tools are available at https://cbe.berkeley.edu/resources/tools/. Some support ceiling fan placement and help resolve other important temperature-design related issues, for instance.
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