The Smells of Politics, Danger, and Food

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 smells of sociological interest
compiled by Otto Didact, Improbable Research staff

(Image credit: cometstarmoon)

Political Ideology Stinks, or Smells Agreeable
“Assortative Mating on Ideology Could Operate Through Olfactory Cues,” Rose McDermott, Dustin Tingley, and Peter K. Hatemi, American Journal of Political Science, vol. 58, no. 4, October 2014, pp. 997–1005. (Thanks to Tony Tweedale for bringing this to our attention.) The authors, at Brown University, Harvard University, and The Pennsylvania State University, explain:

[RESULTS:] individuals find the smell of those who are more ideologically similar to themselves more attractive than those endorsing opposing ideologies....

In one particularly illustrative case, a participant asked the experimenter if she could take one of the vials home with her because she thought it was “the best perfume I ever smelled”; the vial was from a male who shared an ideology similar to the evaluator. She was preceded by another respondent with an ideology opposite to the person who provided the exact same sample; this participant reported that that vial had “gone rancid” and suggested it needed to be replaced.

The Dangerous Smell of Men Who Box
“You Smell Dangerous: Communicating Fight Responses Through Human Chemosignals of Aggression,” Smiljana Mutic, Valentina Parma, Yvonne F. Brunner, and Jessica Freiherr, Chemical Senses, vol. 41, no. 1, 2016, pp. 35-43. The authors, at Uniklinik RWTH Aachen, Germany; Monell Chemical Senses Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; and the Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden, report:

In study 1, we investigated whether the body odor of a stranger with the intention to harm serves as a chemosignal of aggression. Sixteen healthy male participants donated their body odor while engaging in a boxing session characterized by aggression induction methods (chemosignal of aggression) and while performing an ergometer session (exercise chemosignal). Self-reports on aggression-related physical activity, motivation to harm, and angry emotions selectively increased after aggression induction. In study 2, we examined whether receivers smelling such chemosignals experience emotional contagion (e.g., anger) or emotional reciprocity (e.g., anxiety).... Behavioral results indicate that chemosignals of aggression induce an affective/cognitive modulation compatible with an anxiety reaction in the recipients.

Garlic Dilemma
“Garlic: A Sensory Pleasure or a Social Nuisance?” Susanna Rosin, Hely Tuorila, and Antti Uutela, Appetite, vol. 19, no. 2, October 1992, pp. 133-43. (Thanks to Francesca Collins for bringing this to our attention.) The authors report that:

100 shoppers (aged 18-72 yrs) in Helsinki were interviewed to evaluate beliefs, attitudes and norms concerning the consumption of garlic. A subsequent postal questionnaire [measured] the annoyance related to the smell of garlic, compared with other social odors. The most frequent beliefs about garlic pertained to its good taste, unpleasant smell, and healthiness. Users and nonusers showed distinctly different belief patterns. Sweat and alcohol were considered the most annoying social odors, and garlic and perfume/aftershave the least so.

When Things Smell Fishy
“Something Smells Fishy: Olfactory Suspicion Cues Improve Performance on the Moses Illusion
and Wason Rule Discovery Task,” David S. Lee, Eunjung Kim, and Norbert Schwarz, Journal of
Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 59, July 2015, pp. 47–50. The authors, at the University of Michigan and the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, explain:
In many languages, suspicion is metaphorically associated with smell; in English, this smell is “fishy”.

We tested whether incidental exposure to fishy smells influences information processing. In Study 1, participants exposed to incidental fishy smells (vs. no odor) while answering questions were more likely to detect a semantic distortion (the “Moses illusion”), but not more likely to falsely identify an undistorted question as misleading. In Study 2, participants exposed to fishy smells (vs. no odor) were more likely to engage in negative hypothesis testing (falsifying their own initial hunch), resulting in better performance on the Wason rule discovery task....

Before each session, one experimenter sprayed either a .5-ounce of fish oil (fishy condition) or a .5-ounce of water (control condition) on a small piece of paper and attached it underneath the writing surface in the booth.


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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