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Beautiful Minds

Insights into intelligence, creativity, and the mind

Can You Smell Personality?

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First impressions matter. This may not come as much of a surprise, but just how quickly we form impressions, and which cues we use to make such rapid judgements may very much surprise you.

Take the face. Superstar social psychologist Nalini Ambady (**see below) and her colleagues found that judgements of traits relating to power (competence, dominance, and facial maturity) based on photos of the faces of managing partners of America's 100 top law firms predicted the law firms' financial success. What's more, these judgements demonstrated significant cross-cultural agreement, and were consistent across much of the lifespan (significant predictions were found based on judgements of their undergraduate yearbook pictures taken before they started their law careers).

What about other cues? Research suggests that human body odor signals quite a bit of information, including sex, age, genetic compatibility, and female fertility status. Which raises the obvious question: Can you smell someone's personality?! Recent research suggests you actually can (at least for some traits). Agnieszka Sorokowska and colleagues gave 30 women and 30 men 100% cotton white T-shirts (after washing them all in the same washing powder) and asked them to wear them for three consecutive nights on a scheduled weekend. All participants were single and slept alone during the weekend. During the daytime, the T-shirts were left wrapped in their bed linen and after three days the experimenters collected the shirts, placed them in sealed plastic bags, and froze them. Within a week of collecting the T-shirts, 100 men and 100 women each rated three men's and three women's thawed samples in non-transparent plastic bags in a closed, well-ventilated room. What did they find?

The strongest relationships between self-assessed personality and judgements based on body odor were found for extraversion, neuroticism, and dominance. To put their findings in perspective, judgements of extraversion and neuroticism based on smell were about as accurate (and in some cases more accurate) than ratings based on videotaped behavior in prior studies. Not bad. Interestingly, ratings of dominance based on smell were only accurate when people were rating the smell of the opposite sex. According to the researchers, this suggests that "judgements of dominance based on body odour might be especially important in a mating context." No effects of smell on personality were found for agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to experience.

What explains these effects? The authors suggest that extraversion, neuroticism, and dominance may be related to physiological processes (hormones, enzymes, and neurotransmitters) that directly or indirectly influence body odor more than other personality traits. It's also noteworthy that all three of these traits are particularly emotional dimensions of personality. It's possible that fear, stress, and positive emotions are each related to the production of specific substances that influence body odor. For instance, maybe neurotics sweat a lot, and sweat has a particular smell.

But there are other possibilities. Maybe extraverts smell different as a consequence of their behaviors (e.g., specific diet). Maybe people just form general impressions of personality based on pleasantness of body odor and that drives all of their judgements. Maybe there was less of an effect of agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to experience because an accurate judgement of these traits takes longer to accurately assess since they are based on much more than physical appearance and odor. Who knows? Only future research will be able tease these possibilities apart.

Nevertheless, the findings are certainly intriguing, and suggest that a person's face and smell are important cues that influence first impressions of personality. But what happens when face and smell cues are combined? To find out, Sorokowska recently conducted a follow up study in which she mixed together both cues. When people only rated body odor, their assessments agreed with the T-shirt donors' self-assessments of neuroticism and dominance. Judges also stated that they associated neuroticism with an unpleasant smell. These findings are consistent with the earlier study.

When people only rated facial pictures, however, there was no longer an effect of dominance and the strongest effects were for extraversion and neuroticism. Same story when both facial and smell cues were presented together. Interestingly, the faces and body odor of people scoring higher in dominance were perceived as less attractive. Since this finding is consistent with judgements based on faces alone and contrary to the ratings based solely on body odor, this suggests that ratings of attractiveness are more influenced by facial cues than by body odor. Indeed, prior research conducted in a real world setting found that sight was a better predictor of attractiveness than smell when women judged the attractiveness of men.

So where does that leave us? As the researchers note, first impressions are based on the integration of multiple cues, and they are not always accurate. Nevertheless, these results do suggest that the combination of different cues has an effect on the person's first impression. In particular, it seems that while people can accurately judge a person's level of neuroticism based on their smell and face, adding a face to a person's smell increases the accuracy of judging the person's level of extraversion but decreases the accuracy of accurately judging the person's level of dominance.

Who knows, maybe someday they'll sell Chanel "personality perfume" that you can dab on yourself before you go out so you can smell more confident!

© 2013 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved

Image by Steve Dressler.

** Nalini Ambady needs your help.

Dr. Nalini Ambady is a Mom to two high school girls, social psychologist at Stanford University, and a beloved mentor and colleague. After being in remission for 8 years, she was diagnosed with a recurrence of leukemia and needs a bone marrow transplant. Donors of South Asian origin are not well represented in the bone marrow banks and the task of finding a suitable donor is a very difficult one. In Nalini’s case, several potential donors declined to take the necessary blood test, and other potential donors proved not to be suitable matches. Her friends and colleagues are recruiting new potential donors to help her and increase awareness of a need for greater ethnic diversity in bone marrow donor banks. This is your chance to help save a life. Registering to be a bone marrow donor involves completing a contact sheet and doing a simple cheek swab, and the actual donation is virtually painless. A few minutes of your time could save a life. Are you willing to help? Are you up for saving a life? She needs your help within the next 8 weeks.

1. To find a bone marrow drive in your area, please go to:

http://marrow.org/Join/Join_in_Person/Join_in_Person.aspx

2. You can also register as a bone marrow donor online by following these steps:

1. Go to website: www.bethematch.org.

2. Go to: join.

3. Complete the on-line registration.

4. Scroll down to the promo code: nalini (lowercase) and the kit will be sent to you. Entering this code will ensure that the processing is expedited.

5. You have to be between the ages of 18-44 years old to use the promo code and to register for free.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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