All over the world, people like (and dislike) the same scents

TO THE SWEDENthere are few smells more delicious than the scent of surstromming, a type of fermented herring. For most non-Swedes, there are probably few smells more repulsive – the fish has been variously described as smelling like rancid kitty litter, vaguely fecal or even corpse. To determine which scents people find pleasant and which do not, surstromming suggests that culture must play a significant role.

However, new research suggests that may not be the case. Artin Arshamian, a neuroscientist at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, and Asifa Majid, a psychologist at the University of Oxford, expected that culture would play an important role in determining pleasant smells. This was not only due to examples such as fermented herring. They had found in their own previous work that people from different cultures describe smells differently. They also knew from previous experiments by other researchers that culture was important in determining what types of faces people found beautiful. Therefore, they expected a similar phenomenon in smells.

To study how scent and culture are related, Dr. Arshamian and Dr. Majid proposes nine different groups of people with ten smells. These ranged from pleasantly smelling vanilla extract to isovaleric acid, the chemical responsible for the foul odor of smelly socks. Other intermediate odors that the team thought might divide opinion were octanoic acid, with its moderately rancid odor; the sweet-smelling eugenol derived from cloves; and octenol, a musty and earthy scent found in many mushrooms.

The cultures that performed smelling were also very different. These included hunter-gatherer communities along the coast of Mexico, subsistence farmers living in the highlands of Ecuador, coastal foragers, sprawling horticulturists living in the tropical rainforests of Malaysia, and urbanites from Thailand and Mexico City. All 235 participants were asked to rate odors according to how pleasant they were. The team compared their findings to previous work on New Yorkers exposed to the same odors.

registered mail Current Biology This week, the researchers found that ratings of the smells’ pleasantness were remarkably consistent, regardless of where people were from. The smell of isovaleric acid was frowned upon by the vast majority of participants, with only eight giving it a grade from 1 to 3 on the pleasantness scale (1 being very pleasant and 10 being very unpleasant). On the other hand, more than 190 people gave vanilla extract a 1 to 3 rating and a tiny minority, just 12 people, found it off-putting enough to rate 8 to 10. Overall, the chemical makeup of the scents the researchers presented explained 41% of the reactions the participants had. In contrast, cultural education accounted for only 6% of the results. dr Arshamian and Dr. Majid point out that this is very different from the visual perception of faces – in this case a person’s culture explains up to 50% which faces they find beautiful.

Although culture didn’t shape the perception of smell in the way it’s known to shape the perception of faces, the researchers found an “eye of the beholder” effect. Coincidence from which Dr. Arshamian and Dr. Majid suspecting that it must stem from personal preferences learned from outside the individual culture accounted for 54% of the variance in which smells people liked. The “spectator’s olfactory bulb” doesn’t roll off the tongue that easily, but it also seems to be a real phenomenon.

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This article appeared in the Science & Technology section of the print edition under the heading “A rose by any other name”

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