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The smell of fear

16 November 2012

Communication is a delicate art. You know what it is like to be misunderstood and the consequences that can flow from the misunderstanding. Politicians make the mistake of thinking that speaking in staccato, emotionless short phrases removes the possibility of misinterpretation. They are wrong. By removing all of the usual cues they erect a barrier to communication. After all, communication is about more than words. You let other people know what you are feeling with posture, gesture, and facial movement. According to new research, you also communicate how you are feeling via your smell.

It is well established that body language is at least as important as verbal language in communicating how you feel. Not only that, your body language can be a vector effectively spreading the emotion that you are feeling. Research tells us that if you display body language that indicates fear (like widening your eyes) then people around you will do the same. This makes evolutionary sense because widening your eyes causes you to see more effectively, causes more rapid eye movement, and makes you breathe through your nose. All of these changes make you more likely to sense any danger in the environment and if everyone in the group does it your chances of survival are greater.

The same kind of body mimicking occurs with other emotions like disgust. Lowering your eyebrows and wrinkling your nose makes you better able to detect potential harmful elements in the air around you.

What these researchers wanted to test was whether we emit smells that can also communicate our emotions and elicit those emotions in others, so that emotions can spread without you even seeing or hearing what someone else feeling.

To test this the researchers first of all collected sweat from men who were watching either a movie that elicited fear or one that elicited disgust. Women then had to smell the sweat samples while doing another task. The facial expressions and eye movements of the women were recorded while they did the task.

Those women who smelled “fear sweat” produced fearful expressions themselves and those who smelled the “disgust sweat” produced disgust expressions. Their sniffing, eye movement, and overall performance of the tasks also altered in response to the smells.

So if someone is feeling disgust at your new haircut but is telling you that they love it, at an unconscious level your nose will be detecting their true emotion. Face it, your nose knows.