clock menu more-arrow no yes

Can you smell someone’s political views? One study says maybe.

Shutterstock

Do people you agree with politically smell better? A 2014 study in the American Journal of Political Science by Rose McDermott, Dustin Tingley, and Peter Hatemi says they do. But should you trust it?

The idea

The authors cite several studies showing smell plays a role in attraction, or "the basic 'chemistry' that influences how individuals feel toward specific others." Meanwhile, other studies have shown that "spouses and long-term partners appear to be more similar in their political preferences than almost any other trait," an affinity that "exists prior to marriage," the researchers write.

So, the authors posit, what if there was a connection between political views and body odor preference? What if similarity in political views and overall values was partly communicated through the nose?

The methods

To test this creative hypothesis, the researchers first had to get their hands on some body odors from politically opinionated people. They recruited 146 contenders (half through a university, half from the general population), had them rate their self-described political ideologies, and narrowed the group down to 10 staunch liberals and 11 staunch conservatives. These lucky people got to wear gauze pads on their armpits for 24 hours to soak up their odors, while avoiding things like deodorant, perfume, sex, animals, and strong-smelling food. The next day later, they returned those smelly gauze pads to researchers who stored them in vials, because science. (One participant's sample was thrown out due to failure to follow instructions.)

Second, the researchers assembled an even luckier group of 125 people who would get to sniff those pads, and had them rate their own political views. (The authors concede that their sniffers skewed slightly liberal despite "contacting every Republican club at five universities in the greater metropolitan area" in an effort to find conservative participants.) Everyone then had to smell all 20 vials in randomized order, and rate how attractive each smelled on a scale of 1 to 5. It's important to note that the sniffers never met or even saw pictures of the people whose attractiveness they were rating — all they were basing it on was the smell.

The results

Researchers analyzed the responses (controlling for things like sex of the donors and sniffers) to try and evaluate whether people were more attracted to the smells of their political compatriots. They found that this is in fact the case, though they do concede that "the amount of variation explained by odor attraction is small."

The researchers mention one charming anecdote to make their point. One female participant smelled a vial from a male she agreed with politically and asked to take it home, saying it was "the best perfume I ever smelled." But just minutes before, a participant with the opposite political views smelled the same vial and suggested that it had "gone rancid." The authors write, "Different participants experienced the exact same stimulus in radically different ways only moments apart."

Reasons to be skeptical

While the researchers initially raised the broad question of why politically similar people end up married, they admit that smell is likely to be a very minor factor in explaining this. "The influence of smell constitutes only one of thousands of potential factors that operate as part of the complex interaction between local ecology, immediate environment, parenting, culture, physiology, and neurobiology," they say. "It is most likely that odor operates subtly and may affect the regulation of hormonal states and instigate changes in emotional mood," they write in their conclusion.

The authors also mention that they weren't permitted to control for their participants' sexual orientation, because the institutional review board wouldn't allow it. And it's also worth remembering that the smells analyzed in this study were from only about 10 liberals and 10 conservatives — that's an extremely mall sample size. So the study is suggestive, but much bigger, more rigorous research would be needed before anyone could say, conclusively, that politics stinks.

(Hat tip to the Washington Post's Gail Sullivan for flagging the study.)