The Sense of Scent

This topic submitted by Anne Branstrator and Christiane Candella ( at 1:07 am on 5/2/00. Additions were last made on Wednesday, May 7, 2014. Section: Cummins.

The Sense of Scent



This project attempted to explore the role that scent, and specifically artificial scent, plays in collegiate interpersonal relationships. It has been hypothesized that scent plays a crucial role in sexual attraction between individuals. A survey and empirical experiment will be conducted in an attempt to prove that not only is scent important in college-aged persons interactions, but that showered and artificial scents in comparison to natural odors is the most desired.

How Did We Decided on Our Project?

Anne, her roommate Corinne, myself (Christiane,) and my roommate Kristie, were at Alexander dining hall one evening brainstorming potential topics to research when Kristie suggested that pheromones might be interesting to explore. I did not know what pheromones were so Kristie gave us a brief explanation of the theory surrounding animal and human pheromones. After this a conversation evolved into if and how scent affects relationship decisions. We discussed how all of us habitually used scented products from tampons to lotions and if this was a subtle attempt by us to cover up our natural scents. Has society deemed artificial scents more appealing than individual odors? And are these scents more desirable to others? These questions and many more were posed throughout an excited evening at dinner and as we left our decision has been solidified.

What We Plan to Accomplish:

In our work we have and are continuing to explore the interworkings of personal relationships and what factors influence sexual attraction. Beyond the obvious triggers such as visual stimulants and character preferences, we were interested in other factors as the likes of scent and American? obsession with scented products.

Our agenda was focused around whether scent was consciously used by people to attract desired partners. We explored student? responses to popular colognes and perfumes, as well as, their own opinions about personal hygiene and significance of smell. Throughout our research project we have researched and tested the ways in which people use their sense of smell to search out and maintain platonic and intimate relationships. We believe that scent is a very crucial element in interpersonal relationships and is reinforced by societal hygiene expectations and other various factors. We intend to support this claim in research by exploring personal feelings about scent from a scientific perspective.


This project is interesting because of its wide reaching implications. Having maintained our research exclusively on the Western campus, the communal interactions and the interpersonal relationships of the community can be explored based on our findings. In addition, prevalent stereotypes flow between main campus and the Western program. The research conducted in this project, can be viewed as contradictory to the myths that seep across campus about Western student? shower habits (or the lack thereof) and their "absence" of personal hygiene. Further explanation into the results of our polling will appear later in the results section.


Literature Review

1. Vroon, Piet. Smell?he Secret Seducer. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York,
New York;

This book explores the role that scents play in all types of interpersonal relationships. One of major points that is emphasized throughout is the fact that smell, unlike other senses are poorly "articulated" at the conscious level. This is true because we have not developed an effective way of explaining this kind of information through syntax, grammar or language.

Smells has an influential affect on many aspects of human interaction. It influences social behavior, interactions and relations between people, and many physiological and social processes are partly driven by smell. A good example of this is the recent studies that have proven that peppermint increases alertness while taking tests, or that certain scents can increase the impulse to buy. Pungent and unappealing smells are also associated with higher levels of stress.

2. Engen, Trygg. Odor, Sensation and Memory. New York, New York: Praeger
Publisher, 1991.

Researchers at the University of California conducted an extensive study that involved 16 male and female college students. Each student was instructed to wear a white t-shirt and to refrain from using soap, deodorant, or perfume, in the twenty-four hour period before the test. After the shirts were worn, they were collected and put into buckets. Both members of the opposite sex were asked to smell the buckets. In almost all cases, the males were able to distinguish between the female scent and male odor. Males reported at a consistent rate that female scent was "sweet" and the male scent was "musky."

This experiment explored subconscious articulations of smell, and was very successful in that pursuit. This study is supportive and relevant to our project, due to the fact that it again emphasizes that humans are capable of identifying each other and even a strangers gender solely on scent alone. The fact that this experiment was successful encourage us in our own studies in the initial stages of our project. To think that we have that much capability all welled up in our noses!

3. Winter, Ruth. The Smell Book. NY: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1976.

20 subjects were asked to identify 20 odorants, which were presented to them on a cotton swab. These were the percentage that participants were able to identify.


salt H20
dirty Feet
new car smell
baby powder
rotten eggs

Due to the fact that this test is addressing very familiar odors, this study support our findings that sterilized surveying of scent on a conscious level does not reveal the true significance of scent in personal interactions with individuals.

4. Pheromone Research Information Human Studies.

Segments of DNA called MHC Linked to Female Attraction to Males
A study conducted at the University of Bern examined the link between MHC genes found within human DNA and sexual attraction of males by females. MHC DNA codes for some of the disease detecting structures that function as the immune system? eyes. When a disease is recognized, the immune system is alerted, and MHC identifies the potential disease smothering them with destructive enzymes. Sort of like a built in antioxidant.

In the study 100 college students were recruited and the men were given untreated cotton T-shirts to wear as they slept alone for two consecutive nights. They were told not to eat any spicy foods, not to use deodorants, cologne, or perfumed soaps, and to avoid smoking, drinking, and sex during the experiment. During the daytime their sweaty
T-shirts were kept in sealed plastic containers.

Now for the smell test?emales were recruited around the time that they were ovulating (it is a proven fact that women? sense of smell increases 100 fold during ovulation.) Women were put alone in a room and presented with boxes containing the male? t-shirts. First the women were asked to smell the new, unworn control t-shirt. Then the women were asked to rate each man? shirt for "sexiness," "pleasantness," and "intensity of smell."

It was found that women rate men? body odor pleasantness and sexiness based on how much of the woman? personal MHC profile is shared with the man of the shirt she smelled. Men whose MHC profile varied the most from their own were felt to be the most desirable based solely on scent.
Hence, a man? sexiness to a woman is directly connected to positive MHC protectors that vary from their own. Therefore, creating a more developed MHC system in the hypothetical offspring of the two individuals.

5. Kohl, James Vaughn and Robert T. Francoeur. >u>The Scent of Eros. New York, New
York: Continuum Publishing, 1995.

This book discussed a myriad of topic about scent and sexual attraction. The relevant information began with the historical context of smell as more crucial in early humans. As humans construct more unnatural environments we depend less upon our senses for survival. Early humans depended on their senses more readily than contemporary society for survival. Sensitivity of their sense and especially smell contributed to the "survival of the fittest" mentality of preagricultural man making one? ability to detect minute smells a more desired trait.

Because the pressure for survival has diminished due to the creation of "civilized" societies, we as a species have become less dependant on and interested in our senses and particularly our sense of smell. (Reemphasized by Vroon? statement on the lack of "articulation of scent on the conscious level.)

In addition to the historical context of this book, Kohl discusses contemporary societies distractive actions on our sense of smell by artificial deodorants and perfumes. He states "artificial odors are only appealing when they compliment the natural odors of the individual." He also states that humans have subtle odors that change according to hormone fluctuations during ovulation cycles, emotional fluctuations (anger, happiness, stress,) and age.

6. Botting, Kate and Douglass. Sex Appeal: The Art and Science of Sexual Attraction.
New York, New York: St. Martin? Press, 1995.

This book was extremely fascinating because it offered many antidotes and situations that most people would pass by without realizing that they are influenced or even caused by smell stimulants. The Douglass?also discussed the fact that scent is a conditioned response that is learned throughout life. Associations are constantly made between past experience and a particular scent. This supports one of our survey questions regarding various perfumes and colognes and whether they elicited a memory from a past relationship either romantic or platonic. Also, just the other day I (Christiane) borrowed my mother? perfume to wear to an interview. Now when I walk into my closet now I get a whiff of her perfume from the suit that I wore and I feel like my mom is standing behind me. I will probably always associate that scent with her.
This book also discusses the role that scent and artificial scent has been used in the progression of "civilized" society to convey prestige and status. During the Victorian era only the riches individuals could afford the scented par fume?that was available to purchase in London and Paris. This trend continues today with high priced colognes like Channel No. 5 and many others. As antibacterial products have become more readily available, smell has now become associated more so with disease and poor health. This notion is supported in our results examining the frequency of showering between men and women. (See figures 1 & 2)

The "Big" Picture

Sexual attraction influences every organism that has, does or will exist on this planet. Within this huge sphere of mate selection are various components that influences attraction or repulsion in a myriad of ways. Within seconds of meeting someone, we make intuitive sensory decisions about each other. From deciding whether her/ his physical appearance is appealing to our image of an ideal mate to deciding on a more unconscious level whether the person's smell is what we're are looking for through a process of 'olfactory bonding.' Many researchers attempt to associate the deepest relationships and the most meaningful friendships with this subtle form of relationship 'sizing up,' suggesting that scent is one of the most influential but inadvertent factors in our willingness to interact with others.


Our experimental design was shaped by three surveys: Scent Survey 1, the Head Turning Survey, and the Interactive Scent Survey. Each survey was distributed on Western campus and randomly given to 50 students each. Data analysis was completed with the aide of Cricket Graph 3. The graphs showed the percent response in an accurate visual manner. We felt that our experiment was statistically sound because of the program Cricket Graph 3. However, in any study there are always unexpected variables that complicate the study. Errors come with being human, and after all, it is humans who are studying other humans.
The head turning test was a perfect example of an experiment that was removed from our study because of such error. After surveying only twenty individuals in this test, we found that rate of errors and the many variables made the test impossible to research.
To ensure unbiased results we graphed all the data and reported on all portions that disproved and proved our hypothesis. However, ensuring that individuals filled out the questions truthfully in survey one and the interactive survey is debatable. But after all if we live in the Western community; we should all trust each other.
Our human nature class actively helped our project in the very beginning. However, our poster was the first to be presented so this gave us plenty of time to use the class? suggestions and the peer reviews.


2/26/00 Do Test 1
2/27/00 Review Data
2/28/00 Write up Data
3/1/00 Do Test 2 (including small survey)
3/2/00 Review Data
3/3/00 Write up Data
4/28/00 Write up Discussion
4/28/00 Write up Conclusions
4/31/00 Do Any Final Reflections
5/1/00 Post information to web

Surveys: Scent Survey 1

Materials needed: none

Scientific Survey
(please answer as honestly as possible)

1. Are you Male/Female? (please circle one)

2. What is your household income?
a. Under 30,000
b. 31,000 to 55,000
c. 56, 000 to 80,000
d. 80,000 to 120,000
e. 121,000 and greater

3. How often do you shower?
a. Twice a day
b. Once a day
c. Once every other day
d. Once every third day
e. Other

4. Do you use any of these products? (circle all that apply)
a. Scented shampoo
b. Perfume/cologne
c. Scented lotions
d. Natural oils
e. Scented toiletries (i.e. tampons, aftershave, deodorants)

5. What is the most significant memory trigger for a past romantic relationship?
a. Visual (images)
b. Scent (perfumes/colognes)
c. Foods
d. Audio (songs)
e. None

6. Does smell play a factor in your willingness to interact more closely with a platonic Individual?
Yes No

7. How significant of a role does scent (either positive or negative) play in a romantic relationship and
your willingness to become romantic with the individual?
a. Very important
b. Moderately important
c. Not very important
d. Not important at all

8. Does smell play a factor in your willingness to interact on an romantic level with
an individual? Yes No

9. What factors play the largest role in your willingness to interact with someone on a romantic level?
a. Appearance
b. Scent (artificial or natural)
c. Socioeconomic class
d. None

10. Do you smoke cigarettes?
Yes No

Test 1: Are You a Scent Head Turner?

Materials needed: none

This test encompassed many different elements that tested for various responses in human scent. The basic out-line of the test is as follows: First one male will be selected to participate in this experiment. He will be asked to wear nothing during the first session of the test, but later he will ask to wear Calvin Cline?s Eternity. Second, he will be positioned about 15ft away from a Miami Metro bus stop. Then we will ask him to walk at a medium pace by the bus stop, while not making any eye contact with any Miami students. This same test will be run using both no scent and scent to produce results. This same test will then be completed with a member of the opposite sex. However, the scent will be changed. The female will be again wearing nothing through the first session of the test, but will later be wearing Clinique Happy for the second session of the test. In both cases we will give those students that heads turned a three-question survey. No students who are witness to the experiment that heads do not turn will be incorporated into the data. Here are the short survey questions that will be given to individuals that heads turn:

Survey2: Response to test 1
1. Did you turn your head because of the scent of the individual? Yes or No
2. Did you turn your head because of the attractiveness of the individual? Yes or No
3. If you answer no to the above question please write one reason you turned your head?

Test 2: Interactive Scent Survey

Materials needed:
1. Ten film canisters (with lids)
2. Ten cotton balls
3. Two plastic cups with fresh whole bean coffee
4. Black marker
5. Five current perfumes
6. Five current colognes

First, five perfumes and five colognes were put into film canister via spraying three squirts of perfume or cologne onto one cotton ball in each canister. Each canister was then labeled 1-5 on the lid of the container for both the perfumes and colognes. Next, each perfume labeled 1-5 was presented to the Males, and each of the colognes labeled 1-5 was presented to the females for a brief sniff, and a series of questions. Between each sniff, the students being surveyed were asked to cleanse their nose palate by smelling fresh coffee beans. The questions were the same for both males and females, however cologne was presented to the females and perfume was presented to the males.

Survey 3: Responses to test 2
Answer Yes or No to each question for each scent SC1, SC2, SC3, SC4, SC5

1. Does this scent arouse sexual desire?
2. Does this scent remind you of older relatives?
3. Does this scent evoke memories of past relationships?
4. Which of these words best describe your feelings after smelling the
scent in question? Relaxed, sensual, energized, other (please specify)


Both surveys were successfully distributed to the Western population. No one over 22 or under 18 filled out a survey. Leaving the testing age between 18 and 22. Intentionally, the testing body was kept between these years of age to have a more cohesive analysis. The data was then graphed into both pie and bar graphs.

Survey 1 Personal Opinion
The first graph diagrams the question; how often do you shower? The data showed that 76% of females showered once a day compared to males who showered 57% of the time once a day. In retrospect the female data showed that .4% shower twice a day compared to 1% males who shower 1% of the day twice a day. Figures 1 and 2 below show these findings.

Figure 1

Figure 2

Question 6 of the survey was the second question to be graphed and studied. The findings indicated that 62.5% of females found scent to play a significant role in a romantic relationship while 42.3% of males found scent essential in a romantic relationship. The results also indicated that 12.5% of females found the significance of scent in a romantic relationship to be not important at all, while male findings showed that 7.7% found scent to be not important at all on a romantic level. Figures 3 and 4 exhibit these findings.

Figure 3

Figure 4

The next question that was graphed grouped both males and females into the same pie graph. The results indicated that 46% of the sampled population found visual to be the most significant memory trigger. While 31% of the sampled group found that scent was the most significant memory trigger for past relationships and other was cited as a memory trigger 1% of the time. Food was found to be a trigger 15% of the time in the sampled population. Figure 5 displays these results.

Figure 5

The following graphs were separated into two groups: males and females. In survey one, question 7 was graphed representing the question: does smell play a factor your willingness to interact with an individual on a romantic level? 33% of males indicated that scent did not play a role, while 66.6% responded yes it did. Female results showed that 83.4% replied yes, while 16.6% responded no. Figures 6 and 7 below respectively illustrate these finding.

Figure 6

Figure 7

Figures 8 and 9 correlate shower frequency and importance of smell in a romantic relationship. The first graph indicates that 52% of males that shower once or more a day find scent to be a very to moderately important factor in relationship interactions. The third bar on figure 8 shows the same inclinations. This bar illustrates that 32% of males that shower less than once a day find scent to be a very to moderately important factor in romantic relationships. In the second graph, figure 9, the same correlation was drawn with the female responses. In the first bar, 72% of females that showered once or more a day responded that scent was an important factor in romantic relationships. A negative correlation between these findings occurred in the third bar on this graph, wherein 40% of females that showered less than once a day found scent to be an important factor in relationships. Over half of those who stated they showed less frequently than once a day did not find scent to play a major role in their romantic endeavors. An analysis of this data will occur in the discussion section of this report. Again, figure 8 and 9 indicate these results.

Figure 8

Figure 9

The next graph correlates the importance of scent in relationship between nonsmokers and smokers. The resulted showed that nonsmokers found scent in a relationship very important 12.5% of the time. While smokers found scent to very important in relationships 0% of the time. Nonsmokers found Scent in relationships to be moderately important 57.5% of the time and smokers found scent to be moderately important 41.7% of the time. To further explore these results nonsmokers found scent in relationships to be not very important 25% of the time, while smokers found scent in relationships to be not very important 50% of the time. Figures 10 and 11 below indicate these results.

Figure 10

Figure 11

Survey 2: Interactive Research

Question 1: Female Response
Question: Which Scent Arouses Sexual Desire?
The graph indicated that Chrome raised the highest response rate of 57% amongst all other colognes. The second highest percent response rate was CK1, which was 52%. A&F, A&F Woods, and Hugo Boss percent response rate were very similar about 16% for each. The lowest percent response was Chrome at 44%. The results are shown below in the following graph.

Question 1: Male response
Question: Which Scent Arouses Sexual Desire?
The results indicated that Journey raised the highest percent response rate of 51% that responded yes to sexual desire. Happy Kenzo and sunflowers raised a consistent percent response rate of 33.3% that responded yes to sexual desire. However, Happy led the way for the highest no percent response to sexual desire. Happy, Kenzo, and CK1 all three had a response rate of 70.8%. The results are shown below on the following graph.

Question 2: Male Response
Question asked: Which scent reminds you of an older Relative?
The results displayed that there was a tie between Kenzo, Sunflowers, and CKI. Overall, 22% of males that sampled the perfumes found these scents similar to the scent of an older relative. In contrast 75% of the male population found that the same three colognes evoked a small response. The graph shows that about 75% of the time CKI, Sunflowers, and Kenzo did not remind males of an older relative. The highest percent response was the perfume Journey, which did not evoke any resemblance to an older relative. The graph is shown below.

Question 2: Female Response
Question asked: Which scent reminds you of an older Relative?
The percent results show that A&F Woods produced the greatest percent response of 28% that resembled the scent of older relatives. While Chrome, plain A&F, Hugo Boss, and CK1 tapered in different directions on the bar graph. The greatest response that did not trigger an older relative scent was CK1, Hugo Boss, and Chrome in descending order according to the female percent response rate. The results are shown below.

Question 3: Male Response
Question Asked: Which scent reminds you of a past relationship?
The results showed that both Happy and Journey triggered the male memory of past relationships with the highest percent response of 33.3%. However, Kenzo and Sunflowers did not trigger the male memory in regards to past relationships with the lowest percent response of 16.6%. The graph below indicates these results are illustrated below.

Question 3: Female Response
Question Asked: Which scent reminds you of a past relationship?
The results showed that CK1 proved to be the leader in the remembrance of past relationships by 50%. But at the same time 50% that were sampled felt that CK1did not remind them of past relationships. The results indicated an equal distribution. While, Hugo Boss had the least amount of memory triggers. A&F, A&F Woods and Chrome were in between these extremes. The figure below shows these results.


Throughout this semester an exploration has begun into human nature, a complex and opinionated debate that infuriates and stimulates people to discuss issues that we had never thought of before as having any scientific relevance. But as the Moral Animal in each of us was uncovered, we, as well as, many other students, began to realize the simplistic puzzle that we had nearly mastered was only the foyer to a much larger labyrinth.

The scent of sexual attraction has intrigued both Anne and myself throughout this project. Every time we were sure that a correlation was going to occur, our preconceived ideas were refuted and we were forced to begin again. Originally, we began this project exploring the pheromone aspect of human sexual attraction. As we progressed through the highly interesting research we began to realize the speculative and complex nature of most of the work done on pheromones. The literature review explores some of those experiments with the MHC factor in DNA. This research was fascinating, but left us a little confused about our capability to soundly examine such subconscious information scientifically.

As we progressed into our project on the more overt indicators that scent plays, as a significant factor in interpersonal relationships, we began to realize that the conscious and unconscious were not so separate. This idea will be explored in more detail at a later time.

Now turning to the data, a wide range of results was gathered during this project some being more conclusive than others. Beginning with the frequency of showering between males and female a trend in both populations maintained that a vast majority (72.4%) of males and females prefer to shower at least once a day. These statistics are available in figure 1 and 2, but are separated by sex for comparison. This constant need to clean, or remove indivisualized scent from one's body is prevalent in the surveyed population and the research suggests that this trend is widespread throughout America.

The second set of graphs (figures 3 and 4) display the significance of scent for both males and females. Both sexes indicated that scent did play a moderately important role the majority of the time, which supports our hypothesis. The combinations of these four graphs suggest that both cleanliness and scent are important factors to the sample population. These findings again support our hypothesis that scent, and specifically artificial scent, plays a notable role in one's willingness to interact with other people. The population reemphasized the societal and personal expectation of cleanliness through daily baths and lack of body odor as desired attributes. Many individuals surveyed wrote into the survey questions that body odor, with all of the negative connotations that surround that word, was an undesirable characteristic in an individual.

Continuing, figure 5 examines the role that various senses play in recalling past romantic relationships. The results concluded that scent was the second highest memory trigger for past relationships rating only visual attraction above it. These results are understandable considering how substantial of a role image plays in American culture.

Societal expectations and social pressures exist in every culture be it "civilized" or traditional. These pressures act as a regulating mechanism based on acceptable standards established by a society who as a whole has been compounding experiences for years in order to maintain personal and communal ethics towards work, family. These pressures function so that all needs of the society are met. The role of the mother in the United States is one less popular aspect of social pressure that has existed for many years until the women's movements during the 20th century. This social pressure can be seen as a self-regulating mechanism to ensure that future generations flourish.

Returning now to the data that was gathered, figures 6 and 7 of the results of question 7 in the opinion survey asking if smell played a factor in one's willingness to interact with an individual on a romantic basis. As stated in the result section, 66.6% of men said that scent did play a role in romantic interactions and women responded similarly stating that 83.4% were affected by a person's smell during romantic interactions. These findings can be seen to support our hypotheses that scent is a consequential variable.

Continuing with the written survey, figures 10 and 11 illustrate the significance of scent to smokers because during a literature review, it was discovered that smoking decreases one's sensitivity to smell. Therefore, we concluded if this was in fact the case that there would be fewer affirmative responses from smokers regarding the importance of smell in relationships. There was a slight margin to support our conclusion, however the 7.5& difference in favor of non-smoker significance does not seem to indicate any strong correlation between these prior findings.

The final section of research that was conducted was the interactive survey that is described in detail in the methods section. Several questions were posed to the surveyed individuals and the results are listed in the graphs and result portion of this report. In this section, the results were very inconclusive finding minimal correlation between certain scents and consistent gendered reactions. However, in Sex Appeal, Blotting described human sense of smell as, "as unique as a fingerprint (147.)" Smells are collected into a memory bank of so-to-speak throughout our life and are associated with conditioned emotional responses, therefore, the same smell on a well-liked friend might not register the same in one's brain if smelled in a film canister. The collaborative nature of scent makes testing its influence on relationship interactions very difficult and somewhat convoluted. However, on a more conscious level it becomes apparent how subtle scent is when a respondent answered, this is a horrible smell, but I really like X scent. The irony in that statement was that the individual had been given that exact scent and identified it as being "sour" and having an "alcohol" tinge to it.

Beyond the Project

This project has been a challenge for both Anne and myself. We had different ideas and preconceived notions of what scent meant to the larger population and to us individually. The books we researched, the surveys and experiments we conducted, and the entire process in general has contributed to a larger knowledge of the complex discipline of science, specifically olfactory science. We believe our project will contribute to the larger study of scent as a sexual attractant by supporting prior work done in the area. In addition we hope to have disclosed that we as a society have become obsessed with cleanliness and covering up our natural body odors with mass produced bath and body products. Again this can be seen as a social pressure created by our society to maintain standards and establish hierarchies that illustrate health, status, and marrying potential.


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