Women Can Smell Cowardice
Big news for students of biology and social sciences alike: a study conducted by Utrecht University has discovered that women can, in fact, smell fear, and they’re not fans of it. While there have always been stereotypes regarding how women prefer tough guys, this study at least confirms that women’s olfactory senses at least excel at detecting who is and isn’t easily afraid.
The research team first collected sweat samples from a group of men who had watched The Shinning in 25 minute intervals, using pads placed under their armpits to collect the odors. These sweat samples were then given to women to smell. After doing so, the female test subjects began exhibiting symptoms commonly associated with fear, such as darting eye movements, increased sniffing, and visibly fearful facial expressions. The researchers also collected sweat samples from men who had been viewing MTV’s Jackass, a show famous for often nauseating spectacles, which caused women to show a reduction in eye movement and show a repulsed facial expression. In both cases, the women were not told what conditions the samples were collected under.
The results indicated that humans, and women in particular, have developed a form of communication that relies solely on the transmission of chemical signals. Even more interesting is the fact that these emotional reactions were transmitted when the women tested were not at all conscious of the situations in which the sweat was collected at all.
“These findings are important because they contradict the common assumption that human communication occurs exclusively through language and visual cues,” said Dr. Gün Semin, psychology professor and the head of the study. “Importantly, the women were not aware of these effects and there was no relationship between the effects observed and how pleasant or intense the women judged the stimuli to be.”
Researchers speculate that this form of unconcsious communication evolved as a way of spreading fear quickly when faced with an impending threat in situations where verbal communication would only heighten the risk of death, whereas the transmission of disgust could expose danger to dangerous toxins in food or water. The team hopes to investigate how other emotions that contribute less to survival are also transmitted through chemical signals rather than verbal and visual cues. Additionally, the study helps explain how emotions can be contagious when people are in dense groups, leading to mob mentality or mass panic.
The decision to use men for the collection of samples due to the higher amounts of chemicals released through perspiration in males, while previous studies have shown females to be more receptive to chemical signals than men. The study did not speculate, however, whether the heightened ability to detect these signals in women were part of an evolutionary imperative to find mates who are not frightened easily.
The study can be found in the journal of Psychological Science.