by Silvana Rueda
Scents and Judgments
It’s natural for human beings to make judgments. In fact, from an evolutionary perspective, it’s even desirable and advantageous. As social beings, humans need to form impressions to relate to others, to determine whether they will hurt or help them by trying to understand why the act the way they do. These natural assessments are influenced by a variety of factors, including facial expression and body language. Such nonverbal behavior can help someone unconsciously determine whether the person walking towards them at night is a threat or an ally, for example (Gazzaniga & Heatherton, 2007).
Nonverbal actions and expressions aren’t the only factors that act on how we form impressions of others, however. New research has actually suggested another, previously unconsidered influence: smell. In a study reported on by Science Daily, researchers from Northwestern University discovered that the most minute scents play a role in determining our judgments on others. In the study, participants were asked to smell bottles containing three different scents, which were classified according to pleasantness: lemon, ethereal (a neutral scent) and sweat. The bottles were also organized by scent intensity and concentration – some bottles contained barely perceptible odors, while others maintained a strong and distinguishable smell. After having smelled the bottles, each participant was shown a face with a neutral expression and were asked to evaluate the amiability of this person. Their assessment ranged from extremely likeable to extremely unlikable. The results of the study showed that judgments about likeability were more inclined to be biased when smell was barely noticeable; subliminal scents were more likely to influence the participants’ judgments than conscious smells.
Such research is crucial in understanding how people evaluate others. The scientific community is gathering more and more evidence to illustrate the importance of subliminal sensory input—especially olfaction, which is typically underestimated—on social judgments…which goes to show that you generally “follow your nose,” whether you’re conscious of it or not.
Gazzaniga, M. S. and Heatherton, T.F. (2006). Psychological Science (2nd ed.) New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.