Scents and sensitivity: Subliminal smells can have powerful effects

Published on December 15, 2010   ·   No Comments

IN A world where sight and sound seem to reign supreme, all it takes is a cursory glance at the size of the perfume industry to realise that smell matters quite a lot, too. Odours are known to regulate moods, thoughts and even dating decisions, which is why any serious romantic will throw on the eau de toilette before going out for a night on the town. Yet in all these cases, those affected are aware of what they are smelling. Unlike the media of sight and sound, in which subliminal messages have been studied carefully, the potential power of subliminal smells has been neglected.

Wen Li and her colleagues at Northwestern University in Chicago are now changing that. In particular, they are investigating smells so faint that people say they cannot detect them. The idea is to see whether such smells can nevertheless change the way that people behave towards others.

Dr Li’s experiment, the results of which have just been published in Psychological Science, employed 31 volunteers. These people were exposed to three different odours at low concentration. One was the fresh lemon scent of citral. The second was the neutral ethereal perfume of anisole. The third was the foul sweaty smell of valeric acid. And the concentrations really were low. In the case of valeric acid, for example, that concentration was seven parts per trillion—a level only just detectable by bloodhounds. As a control, Dr Li used a mineral oil that has no detectable smell at any concentration.

The Economist

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