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How Does Scent Drive Human Behavior?

Scents that evoke positive memories motivate decision-making.

Source: Wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

Olfaction, also known as sense of smell, is the most primal and mysterious of our six senses. Throughout human evolution, our sense of smell has been a key to our survival. Humans are capable of distinguishing thousands of unique odors.

Smell is often the first warning of safety or danger, friend or foe. Smells have the power to drive your behavior on an instinctive and subconscious level. Luckily, you can also harness the power of smell and consciously use it to your advantage.

It's ironic that most people undervalue the power of scent. Fragrances have the ability to evoke both positive and negative psychological states of mind and reactions in milliseconds.

From an evolutionary standpoint, a negative smell, such as a dead animal, can trigger an instantaneous reflex to take flight. A positive smell, such as burning wood or baking cookies, can trigger a sense of security and the urge to tend-and-befriend while you rest-and-digest.

What Smells Trigger a Remembrance of Things Past for You?

In Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust illustrates how smell is linked to early life experiences stored in memory engrams of specific neural networks. Proust vividly describes how forgotten childhood memories are brought back into consciousness with their original intensity when the protagonist in his story dips a madeleine biscuit into a cup of tea.

Researchers call this “Proustian memory effect.” Childhood memories linked to scent stay with people throughout life. Recently, Rachel Herz of Brown University and Haruko Sugiyama and colleagues at the Kao Corporation in Japan conducted a study to identify how the scent of a product evokes personal emotional memories and influences the appeal of a product to potential consumers.

The June 2015 study, “Proustian Products Are Preferred: The Relationship Between Odor-Evoked Memory and Product Evaluation,” was published in the journal Chemosensory Perception.

Herz and colleagues set out to test how odor-evoked memories influence customers' perceptions of a product. These "Proustian memories" are usually formed early in life and are extremely powerful in driving human behaviors.

For this experiment, the researchers used samples of four scented body lotions that were sent to 271 American women between the ages of 22 and 31 years old. Paricipants rated the lotion fragrances for five qualities: pleasantness, intensity, familiarity, uniqueness, and the degree to which each lotion elicited personal memories. In a follow up to the survey, participants rated how much each person liked the lotion.

The researchers found that lotion fragrances that smelled pleasant and evoked stronger personal emotional memories were preferred by most of the study participants. The emotional response to a smell varies widely from person to person based on his or her personal experience. For example, I love the smell of manure due to positive childhood memories of being in 4-H, while most people think it's disgusting.

Wikimedia/Creative Commons
Mockup of a "Perfume Organ" used by a perfumer.
Source: Wikimedia/Creative Commons

The idiosyncrasies of smell-related perception are largely determined by prior learning and your personal history, but there are also cultural and geographic variations. i.e., In North America and Europe citrus scents are perceived as bright and happy smells, while lavender is perceived as calming. In Japan, jasmine is associated with a relaxed mood. Rose water is viewed as being an energizing and happy scent.

Having some knowledge about a given culture can help a perfumer predict the degree to which a specific fragrance will elicit personal memories.

The individual intensity of Proustian memories evoked by a product’s fragrance is the prime driving force in motivating consumers' behavior. The more vivid the memories that a fragrance triggers, the higher the odds are that someone will purchase a product with that fragrance.

Although this study was about using scent to drive consumer behavior, the scents that you choose to surround yourself with can drive your personal behavior in positive ways. The scents that you surround youself with are in the locus of your control. You can put yourself in the driver's seat, and use fragrance as a tool to create a particular mindset and increase your motivation to achieve a target behavior.

Scents Have the Power to Unlock Subconscious Memories

While writing this blog post at a coffee shop this morning, I asked a group of strangers sitting at the table next to me about any positive or negative memories a particular smell from their past evoked. It was a fun conversation, that ended up lasting for over an hour.

One woman in her late 70s said that her father always wore English Leather and her mother wore Shalimar. Whenever she smells these fragrances she's reminded of her parents and her childhood. Another woman said that she would change her perfume with every new boyfriend in high school. She asked me to look up the various fragrances from her past on while we were speaking.

Across the board, the smell of wood burning in a fireplace, fresh cut grass, and the pine smell of a Christmas tree were all associated with positive memories. Everyone strongly associated the smell of baking bread and bacon with "home sweet home."

One person at the table named Jim had been in Vietnam. He said that the smell of burning hot dogs or a chemical called cordite (a smokeless explosive used in ammunition) gives him harrowing flashbacks of wartime.

After reading this post, I'd recommend asking yourself and others around you about their relationship to various smells and fragrances and their personal remembrance of things past associated with a particular smell.

Olfaction and the Mindset of Peak Performance

Wikimedia/Creative Commons
Perfume museum in Paris.
Source: Wikimedia/Creative Commons

I first discovered the link between olfaction and athletic performance when I started running as a teenager in the early 1980s. At the time, the original Polo cologne was very popular and I loved the smell.

Before every run, I would religiously douse myself with Polo cologne. I associated the smell with horseback riding and would pretend that the smell was an elixir that helped me metamoraphasize into Secretariat when I ran. To this day, the smell of Polo cologne mixed with sweat makes me feel seventeen again.

In The Athlete's Way, I have a section on the power of olfaction and ritualization that I used in competition to create an energized and optimstic mindset for peak performance in sports competitions. On page 86, I describe the power of olfactory memories linked to a time, place, mindset, and behavior from my personal perspective,

Recall the smells of your childhood. Don't the smells of Silly Putty and Play-Doh bring back huge waves of memory? I surround myself with scents that evoke positive psychology and ideal athletic mindset. I have a cardboard box containing all of these smells which are like time capsules. I usually encode a scent for a few the months leading up to a big race, visualizing the event day in and day out. I bring these scents with me to help create a sense of familiarity and safety. I recommend that you pay attention to how smell is integrated into your athletic process and how olfaction affects your mindset and mood. Make positive associations, even to bad smells like the locker room.

As a professional athlete, I consciously used olfaction to create a specific mood, mindset, and target behavior. For example, the smell of sunscreen always reminds me of summer and fills me with the energy and cheerfulness of clear blue skies and bright sunshine. On gray, wintry days when I was training on a treadmill inside a depressing gym, the smell of sunscreen evoked all the positive emotions associated with summertime.

Interestingly, just like an old song that you haven't heard in ages can take you back to a time and place more vividly than a "golden oldie" that is overplayed, a scent that you haven't smelled in a long time remains more strongly associated with a specific time and place if the smell hasn't had any new memories woven into the neuronal tapestry recently.

The Anatomy of a Fragrance

The word perfume is derived from the Latin word perfumare, meaning "to smoke through." Perfumery is the art of making perfumes. A Perfumer is a "nose" or person who creates fragrances.

The art of perfumery began in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, and was further refined by the Romans and Persians. Creating a fragrance requires the harmonious mixing of potentially hundreds of individual natural and synthetic aromatic chemicals. Typically, perfumers create three tiers of "fragrance notes"—these include top notes, middle "heart" notes, and base notes—that unfold over time as the fragrance mixes with the natural oils of your skin.

Top notes tend to be light, dissipate quickly, and are often citrusy. The middle and bottom notes of a fragrance are deeper aromas and could be depicted as earthy or woodsy. Anywhere from 800 to 1,500 different aromas characteristics, could be found in a complex fragrance. Below is a pyramid that describes how different scents contribute to the fragrance pyramid.

Perfume Shrine/Labeled for Reuse
Source: Perfume Shrine/Labeled for Reuse

As an example, the Polo cologne that I wore as a teenager is an extremely complex scent created by perfumer Carlos Benaim that includes: Top Notes of Pine, Bergamot Lavender, Cumin, Basil. Heart Notes of Coriander, Marjoram, Jasmin, Geranium, Thyme; and Base notes of Leather, Oakmoss, Patchouli, Amber, Musk and Frankinsense. If you'd like to identify the various ingredients and notes of your favorite perfume or cologne click here for a directory of almost every fragrance ever created.

Creating an emotional tone through a fragrance is a scientific process. Every fragrance contains a unique blend of synthetic and natural substances, including essential oils extracted from flowers and plants, and man-made synthetic smells. The subtle scents found within each aspect of a fragrance always blends with an individuals own chemistry, which adds to a "signature scents" Proustian allure.

Conclusion: You Can Use the Power of Olfaction to Create Mindset and Behavior

Recognizing the power of specific smells in your day-to-day life gives you the ability to use fragrance as a tool to create a psychological state of mind on demand. Also, the memories attached to an aroma can help you relive the positive associations linked with the people and places of your past.

If you'd like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

© Christopher Bergland 2015. All rights reserved.

The Athlete’s Way ® is a registered trademark of Christopher Bergland.

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