According to a new(ish) study, nice smells make us nice people.
I caught wind of this story (excuse the pun) on the radio the other day and thought I’d do a bit of background to find out what the research is about. I found this article in the Daily Mail, an infamously crap source of science news, but more importantly I located the paper(1).
OK so first off, this has nothing to do with bread! Every news article, radio spot or anything makes mention of bread. The paper only uses it as an example, preferring the phrase ‘ambient odour’ or ‘pleasant scent’. Many would say bread is included in this category, the primary investigator agrees. However this could also include perfumes and many other forms of cooking.
The second point I would like to make is that this paper focuses on what some people would call ‘priming’. This is where your subconscious mind takes in information which then affects your future choices without you realising. This is more or less the way subliminal advertising and product placement works. To be fair, the papers may as well have ran the article as ‘Bread and most things that smell good are sources of subliminal messages that make people pick up gloves’ (more on the last bit later).
To make this clearer I’ll give a few examples. If you watch a film sponsored by Coca Cola there will probably be loads of Coca Cola bottles and adverts in the background. Because of this you will probably want to buy some Coca Cola by the end of the film, even if you never really paid attention to the product placement. That’s because the overwhelming presence of the brand in the film triggered your subconscious to take note, so that when you leave the cinema after a 2 hour film and you’re feeling a bit thirsty, the first drink that comes to mind is Coca Cola.
A much weirder example comes from a paper(2) published by a group of researchers at Yale. In this study they found that when subjects were asked to perform word tasks that used words associated with the elderly (apparently the list included Knits, Bingo and Florida), they would start to act more like an elderly person after the test was complete. This was shown by the fact that those who performed elderly based word tasks walked slower than those who did other tasks. To be fair the paper does sound quite questionable, even possibly racist at points. But it is still a valid example!
The bread paper however is fairly decent, for a social psychology study. All of the participants had more or less no idea what was going on, which reduces bias, but also brings about an almost spy game scenario (a person, or “confederate” stands in front of a shop “looking” through their bag whilst actually finding a test subject/target/victim. This victim has to be an adult, who is not too old, and must be alone. Once the victim has been targetted the confederate walks in front of them, dropping a glove, If the victim is nice, they pick up the glove and give it back, if they are not, they don’t. All this while both are being watched by people several meters away, noting down their every move. The only variable being a nice smelling shop, bread/perfume etc. or a not so nice smelling shop, clothes/shoes/tech etc.). The statistics confirms the hypothesis and the n values are around 400, so not catastrophically low or anything. The only issue is that this is social psychology and human behaviour is unpredictable at the best of times.
The end results show that pleasant odours results in more nicer people than a lack of pleasant odours (77.0% vs. 52.5%) and that men are nicer than women (72.5% vs. 57.0%). Apparently the group removed all romantic (apparently too scared to say sexual) factors so it’s nothing to do with men looking for a date!
In my opinion, odours can travel relatively large distances and there are other confounding factors to be considered that may weaken the main statement (maybe it’s the look of the pleasant smelling objects, such as food, that makes us nice and not the smell). So I think the only real thing we can take away from this is that, statistically, men are nicer than women.
And also that you shouldn’t run in a 100 metre sprint after playing bingo.
Guéguen, N. (2012). The Sweet Smell of … Implicit Helping: Effects of Pleasant Ambient Fragrance on Spontaneous Help in Shopping Malls The Journal of Social Psychology, 152 (4), 397-400 DOI: 10.1080/00224545.2011.630434
Bargh JA, Chen M, & Burrows L (1996). Automaticity of social behavior: direct effects of trait construct and stereotype-activation on action. Journal of personality and social psychology, 71 (2), 230-44 PMID: 8765481