The following is a study in which researchers tried to come up with some broad, basic categories of emotional responses to odors. How they did the study (for our purposes) is less important than the actual findings.
The findings are super important because it gives you a broad rule of thumb for what types of emotions a fragrance might evoke.
A study was published in 2009 in the Oxford journal Chemical Senses that examines the broad categories of emotional reactions to odors.
The researchers started out by noting that previous research found that odors have been shown to do a lot to a person:
- They can shift a person’s thinking and behavior
- They can change physiological parameters (heart rate, skin conductance)
- They can evoke emotionally intense memories
So it doesn’t seem like a stretch to say that odors can affect our emotions. But what kinds of emotions? Are there any rules of thumb or categories involved?
First, the researchers gathered a list of 480 words.
- Some of the words were general emotion-related words.
- Some of the words were more specific to scents.
The study was conducted in French, so keep in mind each of these terms is a rough translation of a French word (some may make more sense than others).
- The purpose of these words is to get a huge list of potential descriptors that people can use for scents.
- Then, the researchers got 210 people to look through the words and say whether each word seemed like it was relevant to the evaluation of scents/odors.
- The researchers then took the 124 most relevant words and put them in a new list.
- 73 were primarily emotional words.
- 60 were primarily descriptors of the quality/type of odor.
- 9 terms overlapped between the two lists.
The researchers then set up a well-ventilated room that allowed 6 participants to be run at the same time.
24 different types of odors were selected to be rated in the study.
- Half were more unpleasant smells, and half were pleasant.
- The odors were mixed in an odorless dipropylene glycol mix so that they would be of the same average intensity.
- The odors were presented to participants in a pen-like handheld dispenser.
There were two sessions:
- One asked participants to rate the emotions evoked by each scent (using the list of emotional words from the preliminary study)
- One asked participants to rate the quality of each scent (using the list of quality words from the preliminary study)
The researchers wanted to discover how the scents tended to statistically “cluster” together.
- In other words, did it turn out that there were clusters of scents that tended to be rated in the same general way, using the same words?
- Then, these clusters were examined and given names.
They found 5 basic emotional categories of scents:
- These were scents that tended to evoke a feeling of happiness and well-being.
- Some of the main words used to describe these fragrances were: pleasant, pleasant surprise, amusement, attracted, well-being, happiness, nostalgic, salivating.
- These were scents that tended to evoke both awe and sensuality (which seems to include attraction and sexuality).
- Some of the main words used to describe these fragrances were: admiration, in love, desire, feeling awe, excited, romantic, sensual, sexy.
- These were odors that people generally found irritating or disgusting.
- People used these words to describe these scents: disgusted, unpleasant, unpleasant surprise, angry, dissatisfaction, irritated, sickening, dirty.
- These were peaceful and soothing fragrances.
- People used these words to describe them: soothed, light, clean, relaxed, serene, reassured.
- These were scents that were both energizing and refreshing.
- People used these words to describe them: energetic, refreshed, revitalized, stimulated, invigorating, shivering.
They also found 4 general categories to describe the qualities/features of scents.
- Pleasant, attractive, beneficial, carnal, delicate, discrete, distinguished, soft, elegant, erotic, feminine, harmonious, light clean, refined, reassuring, romantic, seducing, sensual, sophisticated, subtle, voluptuous.
- This category is heavily related to the “awe/sensuality” emotional category.
- Animal, unpleasant, foul, heavy, nauseous, penetrating, stinky, dirty, persistent
- This category is heavily related to the “disgust/irritation” category.
- Dynamic, fresh, spring-like, clean, pure, invigorating, healthy, tonic
- This category is heavily related to the “energizing/refreshing” emotional category.
- Mouth-watering, childish, sweet
- This category is heavily related to the “happiness/well-being” emotional category.
This was conducted in roughly the same way, but with:
- More diverse participants (at a science fair)
- More participants
- Fewer descriptive terms
- More odors (56)
The results were similar to the first experiment, with some slight differences.
In this study they found 6 basic emotional responses.
After comparing the results of the first and second study, they found that a 6-factor model was the best fit. So here is the FINAL list of the 6 basic emotional categories of scents:
- Pleasant feeling
- These scents are related to happiness and well-being.
- Associated with ecstatic feelings, such as feeling awe.
- Unpleasant feeling
- These scents were related to disgust and irritation.
- Also related to anger and dissatisfaction.
- Related generally to social interaction, but mostly to a specific type of social interaction: romance and sex.
- Associated with terms such as “sensual,” “desire,” and “in love.”
- Related to soothing effects.
- Produces meditative-like feelings such as “light” and “serene.”
- Produces stimulating, purifying effects.
- Also physiological emotions such as “shivering.”
- Sensory pleasure
- This is a complicated category but all the components relate to event-related pleasure (in other words, these scents remind people of pleasurable events such as eating, or nostalgic events such as summertime or fairs).
- Included “nostalgia,” “amusement,” and “salivating” as descriptive terms.
Unfortunately, the researchers didn’t say which fragrances were associated with which categories, but we can get a pretty good sense (no pun intended) of which one lines up with each (a full list of odors will be attached to the bottom of this document).
What we do learn is that generally, odors can evoke a wide range of emotions, but these emotions tend to cluster around different categories.
An odor can also fit a couple different categories!
Thus, we can use this information to intentionally evoke emotions in ourselves and others.
Do we want a fragrance to motivate and refresh us? Or do we want an odor to be more soothing and relaxing? Maybe we want to attract and excite a member of the opposite sex?
List of total fragrances used in the studies (first the actual odorant name, then if it’s not clear I’ll put the scent that the odorant is trying to evoke):
- Agarwood smoke (wood)
- Anethol (anise)
- Beef (beef stew)
- Butter popcorn
- Carbinol (mushroom)
- Chinese incense
- Cigarette smoke
- Civet (feces)
- Face cream fragrance
- Cream strawberry
- Eugenol (cloves)
- Firsantol (wood)
- Floral strawberry
- Fried shallot (onion)
- Ghee (cheese)
- Isovaleric acid (dirty socks)
- Landes wood (wood)
- Lily of the valley
- Methyl salicylate
- Neroli (orange blossom)
- Oil of cade (fire smoked ham)
- Olive oil
- Pipol (grass)
- PK EXTRA (manure)
- Resinoide incense
- Sclarymol (sulfur and onion)
- Stone pine (pine)
- Sulfox (rotten egg)
- Synthetic body odor (sweat)
- Tutti frutti
- Wolfwood (wood)
Chrea, C., Grandjean, D., Delplanque, S., Cayeux, I., Le Calve, B., Aymard, L., Velazco, M. I., Sander, D., & Scherer, K. R. (2009). Mapping the semantic space for the subjective experience of emotional responses to odors. Chemical Senses, 34, 49-62. Link: https://chemse.oxfordjournals.org/content/34/1/49.abstract