Q: How will people think of me and treat me if I go somewhere smelling bad?
A: Good question. The effect is complicated, but the evidence seems to be that a bad body odor may cause other people to pity you and try to help you out of pity. However, people will only help you if they think you can’t help the way you smell. I’ll explain.
Four researchers at the University of Leuven sought to examine the effect of body odor on other people’s perceptions. Specifically, they tested the idea that if a person smells bad, other people might pity the person, but that this pity might cause people to want to help the bad-smelling person.
- In previous research, pity often caused people to be more willing to help the person they pity.
The first experiment is the simplest. Researchers simply got two t-shirts, and soaked one in a bad-smelling spray.
- The spray was a nasty combination of several bad-smelling odors, including human sweat, beer, and hydrogen sulfide.
36 participants were asked to smell one of the t-shirts and then were asked questions regarding how they feel about the owner of the t-shirt (whom they did not meet).
- In particular, the participants were asked whether they pity the t-shirt owner.
As one might expect, participants were most likely to state that they pity the bad-smelling t-shirt owner.
- Thus, we can conclude that smelling bad elicits pity in others.
Then, the researchers built on the previous idea by seeing whether a bad body odor caused people to pity someone so much they might go the extra mile to help that person.
62 participants came to the lab and did a few bogus maze tasks.
- The maze tasks were just busy work.
BUT while they did the first maze, they sat at a table with another person. The other person was actually working for the lab, and he wore either a bad-smelling t-shirt or a neutral t-shirt.
Then, participants went to a second room (away from the bad-smelling person) and were told they would be playing a game. The game consisted of the participant dividing up 11 “credits” with the person they were just sitting next to.
- The credits were chances to win movie tickets, so they actually had some value.
- The participants could divide up the credits however they wanted, so in theory, if they pity the other person they could give that person a greater share of the credits.
Participants donated a greater share of their credits to the bad-smelling person.
Based on the first two experiments, we might assume that body odor evokes pity which in turn evokes charity.
Now here’s the kicker. Experimenters wanted to further explore whether this pity/charity effect was influenced by whether a person could help smelling bad.
- In other words, what is the effect of a person’s accountability for their own odor?
First, participants were told to wait for 10 minutes in a room while they prepared the experiment.
After they waited for a bit, another person came in and sat in the room. That person either reeked of alcohol, or had a neutral odor.
The person gave one of the following stories to the waiting participant:
- “I just got back from a bar because I felt like having a drink.”
- “I just got back from a wedding reception because somebody invited me there.”
In the first story, the person willingly chose to go have a drink and come back smelling like alcohol.
In the second story, it wasn’t the person’s idea to go to the reception – so they’re not as accountable for the way they smell.
- Next, participants went into a room by themselves and did one of those bogus maze tasks.
- Finally, participants did the same game as in experiment 2. This time, they were told they could divide up 20 credits with the person who was sitting in the room with them (either with a bad-smelling shirt or a neutral shirt, and who said he either went willingly to a bar or was invited to a reception).
- Would participants feel more or less charitable to the bad-smelling person if the person was held accountable for his odor?
Once again, on average, the bad-smelling person got more charitable donations than the neutral-smelling person.
However, the bad-smelling person who said they were invited to a reception got more donations than the person who said they willingly went to the bar.
- In other words, people were only willing to help a bad-smelling person if they decided the person wasn’t responsible for their own odor.
From this, we learn some interesting things about bad body odor.
First, body odor elicits pity in people. That’s bad.
Second, when people feel this pity, it causes them to be more charitable to the bad-smelling person. Now, any of you who are thinking, “I should make myself smell bad so people will give me free stuff out of pity,” please turn to the nearest person and ask them to punch you in the face.
Third, people are generally more willing to forgive body odor if they believe you aren’t responsible for how you smell.
- This means that if you smell bad but have a reasonable explanation (and it wasn’t your fault), you shouldn’t worry quite so much.
But if you smell bad and it’s completely your fault, you will (perhaps rightly) be perceived more negatively by others.
Long story short, body odor has a number of negative effects on how people think and act toward you, especially if it’s your own dang fault.
Camps, J., Stouten, J., Tuteleers, C., & van Son, K. (2014). Smells like cooperation? Unpleasant body odor and people’s perceptions and helping behaviors. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 44, 87-93. Link: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jasp.12203/abstract