The Social Psychology of Smell: 3 Scents That Influence Us

Last week I covered a lot of the research on embodiment in a huge post. Social psychologists have identified a bunch of physical sensations that have curious effects on mental experience. For example, nodding or shaking your head while you hear a message affects how persuasive the message is, and standing in a dominant posture affects how powerful you feel, which affects how likely you are to take risks.

But what about smell? That’s a physical sensation, isn’t it?

People love to talk about the psychology of smell. You may be quick to note that it’s the sense most closely tied to memory (which turns out to have some truth to it).

In college I read the book, The Scent of Desire: Discovering Our Enigmatic Sense of Smell by Rachel Herz, and it had a big impact on me. This simple sense that we take for granted is a really big deal. If you were to lose it (as in the case of anosmia), you’d be more profoundly affected than you’d think.

Like embodiment, smells are physical sensations that influence our mental experience through powerful metaphors. Even when we’re not aware of a smell in the environment, it can subtly guide our thoughts and judgments in surprising ways. Here are just three examples.

1. The Smell of Fish Makes People More Suspicious

fish-422543_640A recent paper by Spike Lee and Norbert Schwarz presented seven studies that show a link between the perception of “fishy” smells and social suspicion. You’ve probably heard someone say that something “smells fishy” in reference to feeling suspicious. Lee and Schwarz argue that the existence of this metaphor reflects a mental link between the actual physical sensation and the feeling that something’s up.

In one of their studies, people played a game with someone in another room, and it was a game that hinged on whether or not you trusted your partner. When they had people play this game, sometimes they put a faint smell of fish in the air by turning fish oil into a light spray. To make sure that they weren’t just creating bad smells in general, other times they would put another unpleasant (but not fishy!) smell in the air.[1]It was fart spray. See #3 below… Still other times they’d spray water in the air before starting, which obviously doesn’t scent the room.

During the game, they wanted to see how much players trusted their partners. When people played the game in a room with a slightly fishy scent, they played in a way that suggested they didn’t trust their opponents as much, compared to the other smell conditions.

On his blog, Neuromarketing, Roger Dooley makes an interesting suggestion based on this research: don’t have business meetings in seafood restaurants. Whether they know it or not, people with whom you’re negotiating may mistake the ambient smell of shrimp for an ulterior motive.

2. The Smell of Cleaning Solution Motivates People to Keep Clean

spray-315167_1280One set of studies showed that the faint smell of citrus all-purpose cleaner (imperceptible at a conscious level) led people to put more effort into keeping their work stations clean.

In one example, after spending some time in a room that either contained the scent of the citrus cleaner or not, people were taken to another room where they had to eat a crumbly cookie as part of the study. Even though they weren’t aware of the scent in the previous room, those people who had spent time in the clean-smelling room went on to clean the cookie crumbs off their desk in the second room to a greater extent than the people who hadn’t been subliminally exposed to the “clean” scent.

3. The Psychology of Fart Smells, Disgust, and Moral Judgment

I’m sorry for being crude [2]Am I?, but this is science. Some researchers have used fart spray as a subtle environmental way to make people feel disgust. Disgust, it turns out, is an emotion that can have an influence on moral judgments. When we feel disgust based on physical sensations, we can mistake it for feeling disgusted by someone’s behavior.

In one set of studies, experimenters used fart spray to induce mild, unconscious disgust, which led people to make more severe moral judgments. The researchers simply sprayed some of the product in a waste bin near the survey area (or, in other conditions, there was no smell) before the study started.

As people sat in the room to take the survey, they answered questions about how extreme their moral judgments were about some specific acts that could be considered immoral. For instance, they were asked “How moral or immoral do you, personally, find consensual sex between first cousins to be?

People who took the survey in a room with a faint, disgust-arousing smell of fart spray (which they couldn’t consciously detect) found the acts to be more extremely immoral than people who took the survey in a room without such a smell.

Putting Everything Back into One Smelly Mess

In these three instances, it’s clear that there are subtle influences that scent can have in how we judge and treat other people. So don’t negotiate in a seafood restaurant and don’t spill your can of fart spray just before you behave immorally…although I’m not sure why you would.

Are there other smells that you think influence how we think about others?

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. It was fart spray. See #3 below…
2. Am I?

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