Try and recall the last time you visited a department that sells perfumes, fragrances, or scented candles. How about that time you walked by a Famous Amos cookie stall? Or the tempting scent of buttery, caramelized popcorn outside the cinemas. It’s easy to link smells – and for that matter, odours, with particular feeling states. At least one basic emotion – disgust, is associated with our sense of smell. Core, or biological disgust, is an emotion we feel when we are faced with an object or item that harbours potential pathogens. The resulting facial expression of disgust, and its links with our sense of smell and taste tell us that this particular emotion warns us off from ingesting things that could make us ill. We know less, however, about the links between pleasant scents and its relation to mood, but you can probably guess that those scented candles, aromatherapy lamps, freshly-cut flowers, popcorn, Famous Amos cookies, or even fresh bedsheets all give off a smell that does have a subtle, but positive influence on our moods.
What we might be less consciously aware of are how smells very subtly influence other aspects of our behaviour. Here, it’s useful to think of these subtle moods, resulting from pleasant smells, as a kind of ‘nudge’ towards certain types of behaviours. When we take a whiff of something unpleasant and experience disgust as a result, we tend to move away from the offending object. What do you think happens when we take a whiff of something pleasant? How do you think your judgments or behaviours change?
Some answers to this question come from experimental studies by Robert Baron. In one of his studies, Baron asked some research assistants to put on perfume or cologne. These research assistants assumed the role of job applicants, and were rated for an entry-level management position by unsuspecting participants of the study. Participants rating of applicants’ characteristics and suitability for the job were influenced by how much perfume or cologne the applicants were wearing – and there was an intriguing gender difference observed. Male raters gave more favourable evaluations to applicants without scent, whereas female raters gave more favourable evaluation to applications with scent. The sexes differed on ratings of the applicants’ warmth, friendliness, qualification for the job, potential for success, and overall hiring recommendation – on the basis of whether the applicant was wearing scent or not. Wearing scent then – at least from this study, may not necessarily result in a positive evaluation by others .
In another study, Baron asked two research assistants to ask passersby in shopping mall change for a dollar and to respond to a survey asking about the air quality of the mall and their moods at that point in time. As with any psychological experiment, there was some variation in how – or in this case, where such requests were made. Baron and his research assistants either asked passersby for these favours in front of pleasant smelling locations (a bakery, or a coffee-roasting café), or in front of clothing boutiques. The result? Passersby reported greater levels of positive affect in the pleasant smelling locations and were more willing to offer their assistance to the research team. This research team concluded by stating that pleasant moods explain the link between pleasant scents, and prosocial behaviours .
One final study worth mentioning – also by Baron, showed that pleasant scents might even enhance driving performance. Baron and colleagues got participants to the lab that was either neutral smelling, or treated with a lemon aroma. Some participants were also given a gift, while others were not – also to induce positive mood. Participants were then asked to engage in a simulated driving task. Results of the study showed that fragrance significantly improved participants’ driving performance – but only when they were not given a gift. In their follow-up study, Baron and colleagues found that positive moods induced by pleasant aromas also enhanced participant alertness, leading them to perform better on the driving task. Taken together, what these results seem to suggest is that, in the absence of other factors that elicit positive affect (e.g. gifts), having a pleasant scent did improve positive mood, alertness and consequently, driving performance .
So what’s your favourite scent? There’s no shortage of scented candles or aromas that you could use to lighten – and freshen up your immediate environment. Pick one that you like – and try it out. We can’t guarantee that it will definitely make you more prosocial (or a better driver!), but at the very least, it will put you in a state of a slightly elevated, positive mood.