Q: Can scents influence how my other traits are perceived?
A: Yep. Smelling nice can actually cause people to overlook some negative traits.
Two researchers published a study in 2013 in the journal Social Behavior and Personality that examined the relationship between odors and personality perception.
The scientists first looked back at some old research from the ‘40s.
- A famous researcher named Solomon Asch studied in the 1940s how we form impressions of people from described traits.
- He found that when people were described as being “warm,” they were perceived more positively by others than when people were described as being “cold.”
- I think we all have a sense of what a warm vs. a cold person is like.
The experimenters in the following study decided to see if scent could influence how a person is perceived, using the same type of experiment.
For this experiment, 26 students were recruited as participants.
Each of the participants tested various odors and rated them on the qualities of the scent. The qualities were:
The following scents were rated:
The researchers wanted the most attractive, familiar, salient, and intense of all the fragrances to use in their next study.
The highest on all the desired qualities was vanilla.
119 students were then recruited as participants.
These students were asked to rate their impression of a person based on a description.
The person conducting the study read the participants the following paragraph:
- “I shall read you a number of characteristics that belong to a particular person, Mr. X. Please, listen to them carefully and try to form an impression of the kind of person described. I will read the list slowly and I will repeat it once.”
Then the participants got a list of words to describe Mr. X:
- For some of the participants, Mr. X was described as “intelligent, skillful, industrious, warm, determined, practical, and cautious.”
- For the other participants, Mr. X was described as “intelligent, skillful, industrious, cold, determined, practical, and cautious.”
Notice that all the descriptions are identical except one word – warm/cold.
- In the original Asch study, changing that one word made a big difference. When the word was “warm,” the person was rated much more favorably than when he was described as “cold.”
- When Asch changed out other words (like polite vs. blunt) they didn’t seem to make as big of a difference – but being warm vs. cold really changed how a person was perceived.
- Asch originally suggested that this is because being “warm” or “cold” is a core trait, while being polite or blunt are really secondary attributes.
But this time, the researchers also randomly added another description to Mr. X:
- For some, Mr. X was described as “smelling like vanilla.”
- For some, no odor information was included for Mr. X.
So the categories go like this:
- Cold/No odor information
- Warm/No odor information
Then, participants rated Mr. X on a number of attributes:
Just like Asch originally found, when the word “warm” was included, Mr. X was rated much more favorably than when they called him “cold.”
- Again, all the other words were the same.
But this time, they found that if they said that Mr. X “smells like vanilla,” he was rated more favorably than when they didn’t include any odor information.
And even more: they found that when Mr. X was described as “cold,” but also that he smells like vanilla, he was rated more highly than if he was described as “cold” but with no odor information.
In other words, even though “cold” is perceived as a negative trait, that effect was almost neutralized when Mr. X was also described as “smelling like vanilla.”
Note that the volunteer raters didn’t smell any vanilla at all – they were just told that Mr. X smelled like vanilla.
- But since vanilla is so intense and familiar to everyone, the effect was there without the actual odor even being there!
In this case, smelling pleasant seems to influence the impression that a person has on other people.
- Even though being “cold” is seen as a negative trait, a person can actually reduce this negative trait’s influence on people’s perceptions through a pleasant smell.
- The actual odor didn’t even need to be there – even being described as smelling nice can improve a person’s impression on others!
Possibly, a number of negative traits can be overshadowed by smelling good. We’ll see where the research goes on this.
Saint-Bauzel, R., & Fointiat, V. (2013). The sweet smell… of coldness: Vanilla and the warm-cold effect. Social Behavior and Personality, 41(10), 1635-1640. Link: https://www.sbp-journal.com/index.php/sbp/article/view/3153