The smell of fear more powerful than previously realised

Posted on July 31, 2013

The novelists had it right - fear really can fill the air. Research shows smelling the odour of a scared person triggers activity in a swathe of emotion-related regions in the brain of the sniffer, and leads them to sniff harder and express a fearful facial expression. Still you have to wonder about the real-life impact of this effect. Fear is usually accompanied by the sight and sound of anxiety and we tend to think of these signals as dominant. Would the smell of fear really make much of an impact if it was experienced in the context of sights and sounds signalling no threat? No-one has looked into this before.

Jasper de Groot presented 30 right-handed women with neutral or scary clips of a woman - i.e. either chatting to a man or being assaulted by a man. At the same time, the participants were exposed either to a neutral odour or to the smell of fear. The odours were collected earlier from men's armpits as they watched scary film clips or a BBC nature documentary. The researchers chose female participants for the observation part of this study because they're known to have a superior sense of smell than men. Also, a female researcher dealt with the participants "as the presence of a male experimenter could increase female participants' mood." In science you can never be too careful.

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Source material from British Psychological Society