Smell of Success: Scents Affect Thoughts, Behaviors

WASHINGTON — Suit pressed, mind ready and resume in hand. When preparing for a job interview, most people take every precaution to convey the best impression possible. But aside from body odor, not many people pay attention to the odors that surround them.

That onion-laden lunch could give your potential boss-to-be the wrong impression, according to new research presented in May at the Association for Psychological Science annual meeting.

"There's a lot of research that's begun now, where people are looking at how the environment affects our well-being," said Jeannette Haviland-Jones, of Rutgers University in New Jersey. "We tend to think of ourselves as separate from the environment, but we're not. We create our environment."

Hers and others' research is showing that smell can influence our thoughts and behaviors more expected.

Scented silhouette

Many things in the environment, including verbal and physical cues, can influence how we perceive others. New research presented by Nicole Hovis and Theresa White of Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., shows that certain smells can influence a first impression.

They asked 65 volunteer undergraduates (who were mostly female) to sniff a vial holding either a lemon or onion scent, or no scent, while standing near a gender-neutral silhouette. They were asked to form an impression of the personality of the silhouette and later filled out a form rating several personality traits.

Participants smelling onion perceived the silhouette as having increased manliness, while lemon scents were linked with participants thinking of the silhouette as more feminine, clean and pleasant.

"Let's say you go for a job interview and you are going to have lunch before you go, what do you want your breath smelling like, or even your hands?" White told LiveScience. "This is more subtle than [when] people put on intentional perfumes."

Flower power

Another set of experiments, conducted by Haviland-Jones, determined how a non-detectable level of flower scent influenced people's behaviors.

The researchers perfumed a room with a floral smell, classic fragrances like Chanel No. 5 or Johnson & Johnson baby powder or non-scented air.They then asked 59 college students to write about three life events, one distant, one recent and one possible future event. The essays were coded for the positive and negative words used.

In the second part of the test, the participants entered another room containing a mime and were asked to direct him to act out an emotion from their childhood memory.

Participants in the florally scented room used about three times as many happiness-related words in their writings and were more likely to approach and touch the mime while instructing him. Just 15 percent of the participants in the fresh air room moved toward or touched the mime, while most of the floral participants (74 percent) did so. 

Floral evolution

"It [the floral smell] actually is a mood manipulator," said study researcher Patricia Wilson of La Salle University in Philadelphia. "So your mood is better, and given that your mood is better, you are looking for things in your memory bank that match that mood."

The researchers believe this effect may have something to do with the co-evolution of plants and people, though this is just speculation; the happy mood cultivated by flower scents may increase our desires to propagate them in large numbers.

"The floral odors can make you happy, floral odors promote social interaction, social approach kinds of behaviors," Haviland-Jones told LiveScience.

You can follow LiveScience staff writer Jennifer Welsh on Twitter @microbelover. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and on Facebook.

Jennifer Welsh

Jennifer Welsh is a Connecticut-based science writer and editor and a regular contributor to Live Science. She also has several years of bench work in cancer research and anti-viral drug discovery under her belt. She has previously written for Science News, VerywellHealth, The Scientist, Discover Magazine, WIRED Science, and Business Insider.