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The Odor of Fear

By Christopher Kemp · June 10th, 1999 · Science & Technology
Gentlemen, are you alone? WAIT! Sit still, I have an important message for you. Your lives might depend on reading this, but you must remain calm.

Take a few deep breaths and pretend that you're reading the film reviews. You might not believe me, but I urge you to try and accept it when I say that women can smell fear! Oh, I know, it sounds outlandish, maybe it smacks a little of paranoia. DON'T LOOK UP! Stay with me. It was difficult for me to believe too, at first, but now it seems to make more sense.

Scientists have been aware for decades that many species of animal are able to detect, and subsequently respond to, odors associated with stress and fear.

In the less ethically conscious 1960s, numerous experiments were performed in which rodents were placed in specially designed cages, subjected to electric shocks through a metal floor and then removed. Mice that had received no shock were then placed in these cages and were cautious and hesitant to feed. They were responding to the odor left by the mice that had received an electric shock and a component of that odor obviously communicated the need for caution.

Intuitively, this ability is not surprising and is a common protective feature of species that are susceptible to predation. From an evolutionary point of view, it is extremely important for communal animals to be able to convey the presence of danger to other animals of the same species.

A new study, however, has indicated that humans also might possess the innate ability to recognize the odor of fear. More importantly, preliminary reports demonstrate that women are far more adept than men at identifying and interpreting such odors.

These findings were presented for the first time last month at a meeting of the Association of Chemoreception Science. Researchers asked 11 men and 14 women to watch film scenes from either Ace Ventura, starring Jim Carrey, or an Indiana Jones film. Ace Ventura was selected because of its humorous content and, conversely, the Indiana Jones film was chosen because it was expected to elicit fear and suspense from its viewers.

The subjects also were asked to wear absorbent pads under their armpits that were subsequently removed, separated and placed into jars after the scenes had been viewed. This resulted in four jars of pads that represented happy males, scared males and happy females and scared females, respectively. To these, they added control jars containing pads that smelled of the room in which the experiment was taking place.

The researchers then asked 37 men and 40 women to sniff the various jars to ascertain whether they were able to discern between the groups. In most cases, the volunteers expressed that they were not able to smell anything but, when asked to guess, they were correct more frequently than chance alone would allow.

Women were notably better at detecting the odor of scared men with more than three-fourths of those asked correctly identifying the jar smelling of male fear. More than half the women also were able to distinguish the smell of happy men. Perhaps more importantly, men consistently were unable to detect the smell of female fear or happiness. The ability to smell fear in humans seems to be a solely female quality.

Obviously, these results are inherently questionable and must be repeated with a greater number of subjects and less dubious affectors of emotional state than Ace Ventura and Indiana Jones. I have seen both films, and I am certain that I would display all the classic signs of fear if I had to watch Ace Ventura again. Also, the controls should have been taken from subjects who had not watched scenes from either film.

Furthermore, the reaction of the body to fear and stress was elucidated many years ago in the first part of this century with the discovery of the "fight or flight" response. Essentially, this response prepares the body to either confront the source of the fear, to run away from it as fast as possible or, of course, to try and find a big stick to hit it with. Therefore, the pupils dilate to provide the eye with light, the bronchioles expand to afford the lungs greater amounts of oxygen and blood flow is increased to the muscles that aid fighting, running or finding big sticks. Other physiological effects can be observed, and they include a significant increase in the production of sweat. Because of this, it is possible that the women in the study might not have been able to differentiate between fear and happiness per se but rather between fear and the absence of fear due to the elevated sweat produced with fear. The report also makes no mention of whether subjects were instructed not to wear perfume, cologne or antiperspirant on the day of the experiment as the use of these differ between the sexes.

Nevertheless, the results still are extremely interesting, especially when coupled with the inability of males to detect any differences. In this age of equality, it behooves us all to remember that differences between the sexes do exist and that they should be celebrated accordingly.

It is unclear whether these findings will prove to have any future practical applications. As you read this, biochemical companies are almost certainly scrambling over one another in an attempt to isolate the substances that represent our emotional state in order to patent and market them. Many studies indicate that sense of smell is considerably more important than scientists had previously thought. It is as important as taste in our enjoyment of food. It is the sense most closely linked to memory, and we all use it subconsciously when we select that special someone.

Just imagine how much more confident you would be in your next job interview if you had sprayed yourself with a fine mist of L'eau de Happiness in the company bathroom beforehand. First date? No problem, just dab a little Confidence TM behind each ear, and she won't suspect a thing even though the stench of trepidation is emanating from every pore in your pathetic little body.

But I'm afraid we're not there yet, gentlemen, and they can tell. They can smell it. It's coming from us in waves. So, if you start fanning yourself with this edition of CityBeat, I'll open a window and on the count of three we'll make a break for it. One, two ...



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