In 2012, we as human beings are as close to sensory overload as we’ve ever been. The prehistoric “food as necessity” mindset has been replaced by one that offers over 60 kinds of barbecue sauce. Gigantic flat-screens have replaced nearly every other practical form of visual information, from TVs to store signs to bowling prices. Similar comparisons can be made for touch and hearing. Though our sense of smell was certainly more useful in the wild, primitive days of mankind’s origins, it’s the redheaded step-child of the senses, where most products with olfactory promotions are usually just trying to cover up other worse smells. I’ll admit, it’s hard to conceive other methods of nasal persuasion. Researcher Gün Semin and his Utrecht University of the Netherlands colleagues may have proven things haven’t changed as much as we’ve thought.
In a new study for the journal Psychological Science, Semin hoped to prove that emotional expressions weren’t limited to just visual examples, such as widening your eyes in fear or sneering when disgusted. His team hypothesized that chemicals in bodily secretions would cause similar reactions in both the sender and receiver, creating an emotional bond, only through science instead of icky feelings.
Fear signals have been utilized since our early days as warning signs against danger, and fearful reactions lead to quickened breathing through the nose, which enhances perception and accelerates eye movements, allowing threats to be recognized quicker. But they’re also are associated with survival advantages through sensory acquisition with others. Theoretically, if seeing someone freak out conveys danger and causes the person seeing it to also display fear signals, smelling them shit their pants should do the same thing. Though, in Semin’s case, they used sweat.
The experimenters collected sweat from men watching either a fear-inducing movie, or a disgust-inducing one. To avoid contamination, then men avoiding smoking, vigorous exercise, or consumption of odorous foods or alcohol for two days prior to the study, and also could not use scented toiletries or detergents.
A group of women, unaware of the experiment specifics, were exposed to the sweat samples during a series of visual searches, and their facial expressions and eye movements were tracked and recorded throughout the task. Matching the researchers’ predictions, the “fear sweat” provoked fearful facial expressions from the women exposed, and the “disgust sweat” provoked disgusted expressions. Surprisingly, the women’s perceptions during the tasks were also affected, with sniffing and eye-scanning reacting in accordance to sensory acceptance or rejection.
Researchers acknowledged this could be one of the causes behind the emotional group-think often observed in situations with dense crowds. And I just thought everyone at Woodstock ’99 was an asshole. But I guess this could be the reason why people like David Koresh can amass their misguided followers. Fear breeds fear, and limits the full array of cognitive functions.
This all made me think of the cabin from Cabin in the Woods, where certain gases made the characters react in specific ways. The pessimist in me sees this research being advanced and used solely by the military to turn protest mobs into a group of mindless robots. Books like Martin Lindstrom’s Buyology have shown us ways in which marketing companies have used nose- and smell-based research to subconsciously influence shoppers. And equally interesting information is out there about sexual pheromones’ proliferation in nature. Follow your nose to scary, disgusting, sexy shopping malls. It is inevitable.