Smelly Loved Ones: Close Relatives, Twins, and Sweethearts

The following is an article from The Annals of Improbable Research, now in all-pdf form. Get a subscription now for only $25 a year!

Research about kin and romantic partner scents
compiled by Alice Shirell Kaswell, Improbable Research staff

(Image credit: Flickr user Elias Schewel

Partner’s Body Odor vs. Relatives’ Body Odor
“Partner’s Body Odor vs. Relatives’ Body Odor: A Comparison of Female Associations,” Agnieszka Sorokowska, Marina Butovskaya, and Elizaveta Veselovskaya, Polish Psychological Bulletin, vol. 46, no. 2, pp. 209–213. The authors, at the University of Wroclaw, Poland, and Russian State University for the Humanities, Moscow, explain:

Here we analyzed the relationship between perceived similarity of body odor to the judges’ relatives and their partners, and characteristics attributed to the odor donor. Seventy-six women were asked to smell one of the scents of twenty-nine men, and rate variables related to potential sexual interest in odor donor.... We found that perceived similarity to a partner’s scent was positively correlated with ratings of variables related to potential sexual interest in the odor donor, whereas the resemblance to a close relative’s scent did not correlate with these assessments.

The Common Smell of Human Twins
“Body Odor Similarity in Noncohabiting Twins,” S. Craig Roberts, L. Morris Gosling, Tim D. Spector, Paul Miller, Dustin J. Penn, and Marion Petrie, Chemical Senses, vol. 30, no. 8, 2005, pp. 651-656. The authors, at the University of Liverpool, report:

Here we show that odors of identical twins (but not dizygotic twins) can be matched by human sniffers at rates better than chance, even when the twins are living apart. In addition, matching frequencies for identical twin odors were not significantly different from those for duplicate odors from the same individual. These results indicate an important genetic influence on body odor and the potential for developing technologies for human odor printing.

(Image credit: Hootervillefan)

Smelling Sweetie’s Clothing (2006)
“Olfactory Comfort: Smelling a Partner’s Clothing During Periods of Separation,” Donald H. McBurney, Melanie L. Shoup, and Sybil A. Streeter, Journal of Applied Social Psychology, vol. 36, no. 9, 2006, pp. 2325-2335. The authors, at the University of Pittsburgh, explain:

We demonstrate for the first time that most women, and some men, deliberately smell their partners’ clothing when they are apart. We asked undergraduate men and women who were, or who had ever been, in a committed heterosexual relationship if they had ever slept with an article of a partner’s clothing or deliberately smelled a partner’s clothing during periods of separation. Both men and women reported that smelling an absent partner’s clothing made them feel happy, comfortable, and secure. We suggest that olfactory comfort is a significant component of attachment and is likely to involve family members other than partners.

Detail from the study “Olfactory Comfort: Smelling a Partner’s Clothing During Periods of Separation.”

Smelling Sweetie’s Clothing (2008)
“Olfactory Comfort and Attachment Within Relationships,” Melanie L. Shoup, Sybil A. Streeter, and Donald H. McBurney, Journal of Applied Social Psychology, vol. 38, no. 12, 2008, pp. 2954-2963. The authors report:

We replicated a previous study that found that men and women often smell their sexual partners’ clothing when they are apart (McBurney, Shoup, & Streeter, 2006). We found that women tend to perform this behavior across a broader range of relationships than do men. We asked 128 participants if they had ever intentionally smelled another person’s clothing, slept with another person’s clothing because of its smell, or given another person an article of their own clothing. The most common response was a romantic partner’s clothing. However, women more often than men reported smelling the clothing of family members.

Detail from the study “Olfactory Comfort and Attachment Within Relationships.”


This article is republished with permission from the March-April 2016 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

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