Given the high level of unemployment these days, many of us find ourselves going on job interviews. We fuss over our hair and worry about what to wear to these events, hoping that we’ll give the right impression. But perhaps we should also be considering what we smell like.

A recent study from our laboratory conducted with Nicole Hovis explored the effects of food odors on the first impression of a person and was presented at the 2011 meeting of the Association for Psychological Science in Washington, DC. In the experiment, each of the 61 participants was seated in front of a computer and asked to form an impression of a hypothetical person based on three types of contextual information about that person: A picture of a gender-neutral silhouette depicting the hypothetical person, a list of characteristics (intelligent—skillful—industrious-determined—practical—cautious) belonging to the hypothetical person, and a vial containing a smell associated with the person. There were three different smell conditions (onion, lemon, or no odor), though each person only experienced one of them. After spending as much time as they liked forming their impression of the hypothetical person, the contextual information was removed and the participants then received instructions via computer. Each participant then saw a series of 51 attributes that were pre-selected to fall into four different categories: Cleanliness, pleasantness, masculinity, and femininity. Participants rated each attribute on a 9 point scale as to how likely the hypothetical person was to possess it. After this assessment, participants smelled and rated both the lemon and the onion scent for intensity, pleasantness, femininity, masculinity, and cleanliness.

The results showed that the mere presence of an odor does not have a specific affect on person perception. Instead, the specific odor involved is more important. The odors of lemon and onion affect the perception of a hypothetical person differently, and people used different attributes to describe a hypothetical person depending upon the scent that was associated with them. Lemon and onion differed from each other, with the hypothetical person associated with lemon being perceived as more feminine, pleasant, and clean than the hypothetical person associated with onion. Association with onion caused the hypothetical person to be rated as less clean, feminine, and pleasant.

The ratings of the odors themselves (independently of the other contextual information) were similar to the ratings of the hypothetical person that was paired with the odor. In other words, some of the specific qualities of a food odor may be considered with a person who carries that scent. So, carrying a faint odor of lemon on you might make you perceived similarly to other stereotypical qualities associated with lemons.

We are currently evaluating whether non-food odors, such as perfumes, may confer similar differences in qualities on first impressions. We are particularly interested in selecting perfumes that are purported to have masculine or feminine qualities would show similar effects. But for now, when you’re considering that all important first impression, paying attention to the scents that surround you would seem to be important. It would seem that in first impressions, you are what you eat!

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