Thermostat Wars: Harvard Psychologist Discusses Causes and Solutions

HVAC Logo IconBy Tom MoorSeptember 19, 2023

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Couple disagreeing over their home's thermostat setting

If your home’s thermostat is a source of conflict and not comfort, you’re likely experiencing thermostat wars – an ongoing conflict or disagreement between individuals over the desired temperature setting of their home’s thermostat.

If you favor it warm, your significant other prefers it cool, and your kids like it somewhere in between – there’s naturally going to be some friction. So who’s winning the thermostat war in your home?

“In my household, it was always a battle of comfort versus cost,” Harper Nelson said. “I tend to run a little hot, so I prefer a cooler house. However, other family members prefer a warmer environment. The main issue was finding the temperature that kept everyone comfortable without sending our energy bill through the roof.”

To learn more about the underlying causes of thermostat-related disagreements and potential solutions, HVAC.com, your trusted source for all things HVAC-related, reached out to several homeowners, as well as renowned Harvard psychologist and professor Ellen Langer who provided a unique take on thermostat wars.

Langer: “Naive Realism” at the Heart of Thermostat-Related Disagreements

It’s difficult to determine the exact cause behind thermostat-related arguments, as the reason varies between families. Some couples or family members may disagree about saving money, comfort, and sleep or daytime temperature preferences.

Langer, though, believes the root cause of thermostat arguments boils down to “naive realism.” Naive realism is the idea that most humans see the world around them objectively and their perception directly reflects the truth. When other people perceive things differently – in this case, a disagreement about the ideal thermostat setting – they must be biased or mistaken, which can lead to conflict.

“The reason this happens is because most of us mindlessly believe in naive realism – what I see and how I feel is the way it is,” said Langer, the first woman to be tenured in psychology at Harvard in 1981. “People don’t realize it varies from person to person and often depends on age. The older you are, the more sensitive you are to temperature.”

In many instances, Langer said, the other person isn’t necessarily trying to deprive you of a comfortable atmosphere; they’re simply under the impression that you’re feeling the same way as them. The solution involves recognizing how someone else might be feeling and devising an appropriate solution.

“It doesn’t have to be a compromise,” Langer said. “You might realize that you’re going to be cold, but you don’t have to be as cold. A mindful solution would be taking off your sweater to adjust your body heat. If the other person tells you their hot, you can ask how hot and try to make them more comfortable. If they’re cold, you can get up and get them a blanket.”

Mindful awareness can help solve disputes at home, including those involving the thermostat setting.

“Nobody’s going to be perfectly happy whether it’s finding the perfectly sized chair, the right pillow, or controlling the TV program you’re going to watch,” said Langer, author of The Mindful Body: Thinking Our Way to Chronic Health, which was released in September. “The more mindful you are, the easier you can modify the situation.”

Man adjusting the thermostat

Homeowners Claim Compromise Can Work to Solve Thermostat Wars

For many homeowners, though, compromise is a powerful solution for thermostat wars. Liam Lucas, of Orlando, FL, learned finding the right thermostat setting to keep everyone in his home happy frequently led to disagreements.

“I recall one winter, the arguments over the thermostat settings became so frequent that it disrupted our daily routines,” Lucas said. “I preferred a cooler temperature to work in, while my partner found it too chilly for comfort.”

Lucas and his partner forged a compromise by finding a temperature that was neither too cold nor too hot. They used space heaters and fans in individual rooms for additional comfort to avoid frequently changing the thermostat.

“I believe that it’s important to discuss and reach a consensus in such situations,” Lucas said. “After all, home is a shared space, and everyone’s comfort matters.”

Meanwhile, John Frigo, of Chicago, also compromised and found a happy-medium thermostat setting with his girlfriend, who preferred the house cold in the summer and warm in the winter.

“Our solution is kind of splitting the difference,” he said. “If she wants the AC at 66 and I want it at 72, we’ll agree on something like 69 or 70.”

Or, you can simply try and outsmart the other and throw compromise to the wind, as was the case with Erin and Greg Wilson, of St. Louis, who were constantly battling over the thermostat.

“One day, I came home from work, and there was a new thermostat,” said Greg Wilson, who owns the site Cha Ching Queen with his wife. “It was password-protected. Erin worked for a major HVAC company and had it switched out. The battle ended instantly. I said, ‘Well played, you win.’ The war ended that day, even though Erin shared the password.”


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