Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life

Exploring the simple selfish biases that make us caring, creative, and complex

Smells Like Safe Sex

Behavioral Immune System 3: Foul odors can trigger safe sex!

A new study by Josh Tybur, Angela Bryan and their colleagues uses a comical method to take a serious look at the operation of the so-called “Behavioral Immune System.”  Their paper, just released in the APS journal Psychological Science is titled: “Smells Like Safe Sex : Olfactory Pathogen Primes Increase Intentions to Use Condoms.” 

There’s a serious issue at the core of the research, and it’s one that health psychologist Angela Bryan has been studying for years: How can you get people to use condoms when they have sex?  It’s serious because, as they point out, the use of condoms could reduce the transmission of HIV, for example, by 95%.  Yet, many young people fail to use condoms, even when, and sometimes especially when, they are having initial sex with a new partner. 

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As the authors note, an emerging body of literature suggests that people have a “behavioral immune system” – a set of psychological reactions that acts as the first line of defense against infection.  Studies by Mark Schaller and Chad Mortensen and their colleagues, for example, suggest that activating concerns about disease can trigger socially avoidant behaviors.  By staying away from others, you are less likely to get a disease (I discussed this research in two earlier postings; see below for links).

In a sexual context, the last thing one wants to do is avoid the partner, but using a condom would be another line of behavioral defense.  Tybur and his colleagues wondered: “Would priming concerns about disease with a foul odor prompt people to be more sexually safe?”

To test this, the experimenters informed participants that the pipes in the building were sporadically emitting unpleasant odors because of plumbing issues.  Students were then asked a number of questions about sexual behavior and attitudes, including their feelings about the use of condoms, as well as their intentions to buy condoms, carry them, discuss them with a sexual partner, and to use them during intercourse.  Before filling out the questionnaire, half the subjects got a nasty whiff of something quite foul, as the researchers blasted the room with a shot of “Liquid ASS,” which the authors describe as: “a novelty odor liquid that smells strongly of common bacterial threats (e.g., feces).”  Those subjects were significantly more likely to say they intended to use condoms in the future.

Now, to my wise-ass opening question: “Can flatulence prevent the spread of venereal disease?” the answer is a qualified yes.  But somehow one doubts that those hoping to romance a partner will stop investing in chocolates and roses, and spend the money instead on large portions of pre-date plates of refried beans.  That might lead to a successful preventative intervention, but one that negates the need for a condom. 

Previous posts: 

The psychological immune system: When seeing me sneeze makes you healthier. 

The psychological immune system 2: When it’s healthy to be antisocial

References:

Bryan, A.D., Aiken, L.S., & West, S.G. (1996). Increasing condom use: Evaluation of a theory-based intervention to decrease sexually transmitted disease in women. Health Psychology, 15, 371–382.

Bryan, A.D., Aiken, L.S., & West, S.G. (1996). Increasing condom use: Evaluation of a theory-based intervention to decrease sexually transmitted disease in women. Health Psychology, 15, 371–382.

Faulkner, J., Schaller, M., Park, J.H., & Duncan, L.A. (2004). Evolved disease-avoidance mechanisms and contemporary xenophobic attitudes. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 7, 333–353.

Joshua M. Tybur, Angela D. Bryan, Renee E. Magnan and Ann E. Caldwell Hooper (2011) Smells Like Safe Sex : Olfactory Pathogen Primes Increase Intentions to Use Condoms. Psychological Science, published online 24 February; DOI: 10.1177/0956797611400096.

Mortensen, C.R., Becker, D.V., Ackerman, J.M., Neuberg, S.L., & Kenrick, D.T. (2010). Infection breeds reticence: The effects of disease salience on self-perceptions of personality and behavioral avoidance tendencies. Psychological Science, 21, 440–447.

Schaller, M., Miller, G.E., Gervais, W.M., Yager, S., & Chen, E. (2010). Mere visual perception of other people's disease symptoms facilitates a more aggressive immune response. Psychological Science, 21, 649–652. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Douglas T. Kenrick, Ph.D., is professor of social psychology at Arizona State University.

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