The Smell Report

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The Smell Report


Experiments have shown that exposure to pleasant fragrances significantly enhances performance on work-related tasks. In particular, ‘arousing’ fragrances such as peppermint, which increase alertness, have been found to improve performance.

An experiment using the Remote Associations Test – in which subjects must see connections between words that ordinarily do not seem to be related – showed that pleasant odours can enhance performance on creative problem-solving tasks.

One Japanese company uses citrus scent to stimulate its workers at the start of the day, floral scents to boost their concentration in the late morning and early afternoon and woody scents such as cedar and cypress to relieve tiredness at lunchtime and in the evening.

We may not be surprised to find that unpleasant odours adversely affect work performance, but it is interesting to note that some pleasant odours can significantly impair performance on tasks requiring concentration, even at levels below the detection threshold. In one experiment, exposure to sub-threshold levels of Galaxolide – a musk-like odorant – doubled the average amount of time subjects took to find an object in a visual search task.

One scientist has suggested that the fatigue symptoms characteristic of ‘sick-building syndrome’ are a survival reflex inherited from our evolutionary ancestors. This ‘reflex’ causes us to feel tired, and therefore to avoid venturing out, when our olfactory receptors signal that the air is contaminated (as it is in poorly ventilated office buildings). For our savannah-dwelling primitive ancestors, contaminated air (caused, for example, by fire) was highly dangerous, as the reduced ability to detect the smell of predators made them vulnerable. Although there may be little risk from predators in modern office buildings, the inherited survival mechanism persists.

This theory is perhaps supported by research on people suffering from ‘cacosmia’ – feeling ill from low levels of common environmental chemical odours such as paint, perfume and new carpet. One of the main symptoms of cacosmia, as with sick-building syndrome, is daytime tiredness. The researchers found that cacosmia sufferers tend to be shy, inhibited and novelty-avoiding.

Other studies have shown that shy, introverted people are generally more sensitive to smell than sociable extraverts. If the ‘olfactory-survival-reflex’ theory is correct, it may be that people with high smell-sensitivity become shy and novelty-avoiding because their olfactory receptors transmit more primeval danger-signals, making them feel more vulnerable. Perhaps further research will show that the key to important personality traits may be found in the little patches of olfactory receptors in our nasal passages. You are what you smell?

Unpleasant odours have their uses in the business world, however, if reports about the findings of researchers at a British company called Bodywise are to be believed. In 1991, Bodywise researchers found that people who receive bills scented with androstenone, a pheromone produced by male sweat which is almost universally perceived as very unpleasant, were 17% more likely to pay up than those who received unscented bills.

The company is said to have patented its androstenone-derived odorant, and put it on the market to debt-collection agencies at about …3000 per gram. Androstenone is reputed to be perceived as ‘threatening’ rather than merely unpleasant, particularly by men, which might explain its efficacy in prompting bill-payment. It is also worth noting, however, that women’s responses to androstenone change during the menstrual cycle, moving from ‘negative’ to ‘neutral’ at ovulation. An ovulating woman receiving an androstenone-scented bill might not experience the desired threatening effect. Whatever the sex or hormonal state of the debtor, a solicitor’s letter threatening legal action will probably be more effective than a pheromone-scented bill, and compared with Bodywise’s prices, even solicitors’ fees seem quite reasonable.

Companies (or solicitors) wishing to minimise the shock experienced by their customers on receipt of an unexpectedly large bill, however, might want to consider scenting their unwelcome communications with vanilla, which has been shown to reduce the startle-reflex and to relieve stress and anxiety (see Vanilla).