It might make sense to think that smelling good can affect how people behave around you. But there is evidence that clean scents can not only change your own behavior, but make you a better person.
You read that right.
Researchers from Brigham Young University, the University of Toronto, and Northwestern University teamed together to examine the relationship between clean scents and virtuous behaviors.
Previous research determined that clean scents can increase clean behaviors (people in a fresh-smelling environment are more likely to clean up after themselves), but does this also apply to virtuous behaviors?
The researchers identified two of Aristotle’s virtues to test for the purpose of this experiment: Reciprocity and Charity.
EXPERIMENT 1: Reciprocity
28 participants were individually placed in either a clean-scented room or a “baseline” room. The clean-scented room had a few sprays of citrus-scented Windex while the baseline room didn’t.
Then, the participants played a “trust game.” Here are the rules:
- There are two players, a “sender” and a “receiver.” The experimental participant is the “receiver.” The sender is an anonymous third party that the participant doesn’t know.
- The sender is given money that he/she can either keep, or “invest” with the receiver.
- If the sender chooses to invest the money with the receiver, it is automatically tripled in value. Then, the receiver splits the money two ways and keeps a share, giving the other share back to the sender. The receiver decides how the money is split and decides how much to give back to the sender.
- So “investing” with the receiver is risky. Even though you know that the money will triple in value, you don’t know how much the receiver will return to you. It could be less than you initial investment, but it could be more.
- All participants in this experiment were told they were receivers (there were in reality no senders). They were given an amount of money ($12) and asked how much they were going to send back to the senders. They could choose to send back the sender’s original investment ($4), or choose to give the sender less or more.
- In theory, they could split the money down the middle (each gets $6), they could completely exploit the sender (keeping most of the money), or they could generously give lots more money to the sender.
When participants were in a clean-scented room, they were less likely to exploit the sender and more likely to split the money fairly.
In the clean-scented room, the participants gave back an average of $5.33.
In the baseline room (no scent), the participants gave back an average of $2.81.
EXPERIMENT 2: Charity
The experiment was again repeated, only this time they measured charity.
Once again, there were two rooms: one clean-scented, one without a scent.
99 students were assigned individually to one room or the other.
The students sat down at a table and were asked to work on a packet of a bunch of random tasks.
A flyer requesting volunteers for Habitat for Humanity was included in the packet.
Participants were asked how interested they were in volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, and specified what activities they wanted to do when they volunteered.
They were also asked whether they wanted to donate to the charity.
Participants in the clean-scented room expressed a greater interest in volunteering, and a greater willingness to donate money.
The smell of the room didn’t change their mood at all (so we know that the difference was not because the scent made them happier, necessarily).
These studies simply but powerfully show that clean scents not only change people’s perceptions, but may influence our behavior for the better.
In this case, this means increased reciprocity toward others, and increased charity.
This means that we can subtly but significantly improve our own altruistic behavior just by changing our “olfactory environment” – how our environment smells!
Liljenquist, K., Zhong, C. B., & Galinsky, A. D. (2010). The smell of virtue: Clean scents promote reciprocity and charity. Psychological Science, 21(3), 381-383. Link: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20424074