Making scents of a partner’s feelings

Couples pick up on subtle differences in other half’s emotion-laden odors

BOSTON — Close romantic partners unknowingly smell each other’s feelings of happiness, fear and sexual arousal, according to a study presented on May 29 at the Association for Psychological Science annual convention.

“Familiarity with a partner enhances detection of emotional cues in that person’s smell,” said Denise Chen, a psychologist at Rice University in Houston.

Chen and her colleagues studied 20 heterosexual couples that had been living together, either married or unmarried, for one to seven years. Underarm pads collected sweat from participants as they watched videos that induced self-reported happiness, fear, sexual arousal or neutral feelings.

Volunteers then sniffed odors from four jars containing sweat from either the person’s partner or a stranger of the opposite sex. The participants tried to identify one smell that came from a person experiencing a particular feeling, such as happiness. One jar contained sweat collected during an emotional video, and the rest contained sweat collected during a neutral video.

Overall, participants detected specific emotions from their partners’ body odor nearly two-thirds of the time. Couples that had lived together the longest did best at identifying each other’s emotional odors, Chen reported. Accuracy fell to about 50 percent for opposite-sex strangers. No substantial differences appeared in the ability to identify smells linked to happiness, fear or sexual arousal.

Although people often picked out loved ones’ emotional smells, they could not say whether those odors actually came from their partners, Chen said.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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