How Does Smell Affect Your Politics of Sex?

Causing disgust and manipulating peoples' attitudes toward the politics of sex.

Posted Jun 22, 2014

Smell your email? Hmmm… It’s true according to a recent report. It appears the first “scent messages” have been sent between New York City and Paris.  

According to its backers, the oPhone allows people to tag and email photos with associated scents selected from a palette of more than 300,000 scents. This aroma palette is produced from 32 “primitive” scents generated by several chips inside the oPhone.  

The first scents were of champagne and macaroons. What else would you expect with the Paris connection? Fair enough. But, I’m a guy. And while I’m sure my first scent message will be of a bouquet of roses with associated scent to my beautiful wife, I have other ideas for a couple of my obnoxious guy friends, who, in their more frivolous moments, are as likely to act their shoe size as their age.


For instance, I just learned from research from my friend Patrick Stewart and his co-authors Tom Adams and John Blanchar at the University of Arkansas that people find the smell of butyric acid to be particularly disgusting. Evidently, it smells like the regurgitated contents of our stomachs.

Some 12 year olds might see the ability to text the smell of butyric acid as an awesome opportunity to prank their friends. Luckily, the University of Arkansas team found a better use for the pungent potion.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, disgust has been linked to a number of political attitudes and behaviors, particularly those related to sexual behavior.

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For more on disgust and politics: 

Are You Easily Disgusted? You May Be a Conservative

Could Disgust Make You an Environmentalist?

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In this case, Patrick’s team ran an experiment in which subjects answered a series of questions in a room that had been either aired out or odorized with a few drops of butyric acid placed on two small cotton pads. (I feel sorry for the research assistant who drew odorizing duty.)

Their study showed the subjects exposed to the disgusting smell were more likely to oppose gay marriage, premarital sex, and pornography. The effect was particularly strong for gay marriage.


Researchers have explained these responses by noting that disgust, which is a strong feeling of revulsion or disapproval caused by something unpleasant or offensive, is part of our behavioral immune system. This system motivates us to act in ways that reduce our exposure to disease-causing objects, which, in evolutionary terms, increases our chances of survival and reproduction. For example, dead bodies and human waste, which contain life-threatening bacteria and viruses, consistently induce disgust in people. Because of its role in survival and the ancient region of the brain that it activates, the anterior insula, disgust is often described as one of the original emotions and thought of as a building block for other emotions.

Conversely, behavioral disease avoidance implies there’s a desire for purity, because an encounter with something “pure” is less likely to result in life-threatening disease. Think about the customary preference in many cultures to marry a virgin. Otherwise, who knows where that person’s private parts have been?

And the preference for purity has been found to be particularly important to political conservatives, who have been found to be more sensitive to disgust than liberals. Of course, this is consistent with these results that show induced disgust causes more conservative positions on gay marriage, premarital sex, and pornography.


All this gets back to an important point I’ve made before. Some political attitudes are biologically influenced. People do not fully control their political responses to disgust, just like they do not fully control their political responses to hormones or hunger (see, for example, my posts “Voting and Stress: Do Hormones Make You a Better Citizen?” and “Hungry Games: How Does Hunger Affect Your Politics?”).

I believe when people understand the biological influences on political behavior they are more likely to work with their political adversaries rather than deem them evil or stupid. This is important, because compromise is one of the foundations of democracy.  

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What's your disgust sensitivity?

Find out at (register by answering a handful of survey questions then select the "Disgust Scale").   

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I love the idea of smell by email. Are you ready for scent messages? I hope my wife is…and shhh…a couple of my obnoxious friends.

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For more information see:

Adams, Stewart, & Blanchar (2014) “Disgust and the Politics of Sex: Exposure to a Disgusting Odorant Increases Politically Conservative Views on Sex and Decreases Support for Gay Marriage.” PLoS ONE 9(5): e95572. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0095572.


In addition to writing the "Caveman Politics" blog for Psychology Today, Gregg is the Executive Director of the Association for Politics and the Life Sciences and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas Tech University. You can find more information on Gregg at

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