Smelling is Telling: Human Olfactory Cues Influence Social Judgments in Semi-Realistic Interactions

Abstract
How does a person’s smell affect others’ impressions of them? Most body odor research asks perceivers to make social judgments based on armpit sweat without perfume or deodorant, presented on t-shirts. Yet, in real life, perceivers encounter fragranced body odor, on whole bodies. Our “raters” wore blindfolds and earplugs and repeatedly smelled same-sex “donors” in live interactions. In one condition, donors wore their normal deodorant and perfume (“diplomatic” odor) while in the other condition, donors were asked to avoid all outside fragrance influences (“natural” odor). We assessed the reliability of social judgments based on such live interactions, and the relationships between live judgments and traditional t-shirt based judgments, and between natural- and diplomatic odor-based judgments. Raters’ repeated live social judgments (e.g., friendliness, likeability) were highly consistent for both diplomatic and natural odor, and converged with judgments based on t-shirts. However, social judgments based on natural odor did not consistently predict social judgments based on diplomatic odor, suggesting that natural and diplomatic body odor may convey different types of social information. Our results provide evidence that individuals can perceive reliable, meaningful social olfactory signals from whole bodies, at social distances, regardless of the presence or absence of perfume. Importantly, however, the social value of these signals is modified by the addition of exogenous fragrances. Further, our focus on judgments in same-sex dyads suggests that these olfactory cues hold social value in non-mating contexts. We suggest that future research employ more ecologically relevant methods.

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