News and Tribune

January 24, 2014

STAWAR: Baby it’s cold inside

Local columnist

— The recent polar vortex and subsequent subzero temperatures have highlighted the contrast between two kinds of people — those who put coats on when they go out to the car to get something and those who don’t.

My wife Diane, who grew up in Wisconsin, says there is a big difference between people who have lived in cold climates and those who haven’t. She has a lot of rules about cold weather behavior. These regulations govern everything, from when is it appropriate to start wearing your winter coat, to when does turtleneck season begin. Failure to abide by the code can result in being a pariah, or at least getting seriously mocked. The main idea is to not overreact to a little cold weather. For example, wearing a turtleneck before Thanksgiving is a worse faux pas than forgetting to root for the Packers — it simply isn’t done.    

Wintertime also elicits conflicts between people who complain that it’s either too cold or too warm inside. A survey, commissioned by thermostat manufacturer Honeywell, revealed that house temperature is the most common cause of arguments during the winter. Over 40 percent of respondents admitted that they fight over heating during the colder months. Frequently these quarrels are over when to turn the heat on and whether or not to keep the furnace running all night. About half of those surveyed said that they had trouble sleeping in the winter because their bedrooms were too warm.

Psychologist John Bargh, has found that temperature preferences may be related to social factors. Using brain imaging, Bargh and his Yale colleagues found an association between the brain regions that respond to social connectedness and the ones related to physical temperature. This may be the reason why there are so many temperature metaphors that describe social interactions, such as “a warm smile,” “the cold shoulder,” “warm hospitality” or “chilly reception.”

This association may also partially account for gender differences in temperature preferences. According to Bargh, research has consistently shown that women are routinely more aware and interested in social connection than men. He concludes that women may prefer warmer temperatures, since they are biologically linked to feelings of social connectedness.

It is less clear why men frequently complaint about feeling too warm. I developed a theory as a child. My dad and brother-in-law both insisted that their houses be kept very frigid. Over the years, however, I have known several men who keep their homes quite frigid. Both of them drank a lot and their houses were about the same temperature as the bars they patronize. I have long wondered why bars are so cold. I would have thought that people would drink more if they were warmer.

William Haynes from the University of Iowa, says, “Consumption of alcohol undoes many of the human body’s healthy reflexes, one of which is keeping the core body temperature warm in cold weather.” Alcohol, however, can paradoxically make people feel warmer. It causes the small blood vessels under the skin to dilate and as blood is pumped to the surface, their faces become flushed and they feel warmer. Despite the legendary kegs of brandy that St. Bernards supposedly carry, alcohol provides little protection against the cold weather.

Another temperature stereotype is that older people feel the cold more keenly and as a result keep their houses overly warm. Like gender differences, there are some possible reasons for this. According to Robert Knies, a geriatric nurse specialist in Minnesota, most body heat is generated through organ and muscle activity. As people get older, such activity decreases, as does the number of functional cells. This results in significantly less bodily heat.

While the basic mechanisms of temperature regulation usually remain intact as we age, the ability to detect temperature changes and responses to them slows down. This is due to a loss of thermal receptors and decreased receptor sensitivity. Consequently the elderly often have a delayed perception of temperature. Also the skin thins with age. With less subcutaneous fat, there’s a significant decrease in bodily insulation from both the cold and heat.

Temperature preferences frequently flair up as an issue in the work setting, especially when employees in the same area disagree over the temperature setting. The ideal office temperature may vary, but usually falls between 70 degrees to 73 degrees Fahrenheit. Studies show that typical office productivity is more adversely affected by cooler temperatures than warmer ones and overall productivity decreases more rapidly as temperatures drop, than they do as temperatures rise.

In many work settings it has become common practice to allow space heaters to be used for employees claiming that they feel too cold. Iain Robertson, from RePower Canada argues against the use of such heaters. He believes that they are safety hazards, waste energy, are expensive, and often interfere with the building’s climate control by shutting down the zone’s heating system prematurely.

While Robertson raises several excellent points, he also oversimplifies the situation. Let’s face it, some workspaces are cold and drafty and employees have legitimate concerns. For these workspaces it would take considerable effort and investment to properly insulate and heat them. The facility manager where I work dislikes personal heaters, but we allow them, since some of our facilities have older inefficient heating systems. To make heaters safer, like most companies, we have instituted a number of guidelines, including inspections, basic operating procedures, and required safety features, such as thermostats, timers, and automatic shutdowns.

Last year a team of students from the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT) invented a device specifically designed to address the problem of “keeping everyone happy in a room where no one can agree where to set the thermostat.” Their invention is a personal climate-controlling wristband called The Wristify. It won first prize and $10,000 in last year’s MIT engineering competition. The device is based on research showing that heating and cooling even parts of the body can affect how people perceive overall temperature. This thermoelectric bracelet heats and cools a small patch of skin on the arm. According to writer, Kyle VanHemert, The Wristify, “makes you feel like you’re continually jumping into [a cold] lake or submerging into a hot bath.” In addition to conserving energy, such individual cooling and heating devices may go a long way to resolving temperature conflicts between people in the future.

Diane and I have managed to resolved our temperature preference differences quite simply. I am never allowed to touch the thermostat. On occasion, however, I have been known to accidentally bump into it.

 — Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at