Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Sociological Images

sardines

Mediterranean sardines. (Photo: ermess/Shutterstock)

Smelling Something Fishy Makes People More Suspicious

• August 13, 2014 • 12:02 PM

Mediterranean sardines. (Photo: ermess/Shutterstock)

And the metaphorical effect works both ways.

Earlier this year I reviewed a study that found that, simply by changing the weight of an object in hand, psychologists can manipulate how seriously a person takes an issue. In other words, when holding something heavy, matters seem heavy. Or, concerns seem weightier when one is weighed down.

Thanks to an email from University of Southern California professor Norbert Schwarz, I was introduced to a whole series of studies on what psychologists call metaphorical effects. These are instances in which a metaphor commonly used to describe a psychological state or social reality can, in turn, induce that state or reality. So, for example, holding a warm cup of coffee makes people feel warmly toward each other (here), getting the cold shoulder makes people feel cold (here), people placed in a high location seem to be high in a hierarchy (here), and cleaning one’s hands makes a person feel morally clean (here).

Schwarz was the co-author, with Spike W.S. Lee, on another example of a metaphorical effect. They wanted to know if smelling something fishy made people suspicious. It did.

Asked to participate in a fake study on whether they’d be willing to invest money in a scheme, subjects who were exposed to a fishy smell invested less than those exposed to no smell and less than those exposed to another icky smell that was “metaphorically irrelevant”: fart.

From sensory perception to psychological state:

1

Lee and Schwarz were also interested in the reverse process. Did being suspicious increase the likelihood that subjects would identify a fishy smell as fishy? Sometimes smells can be hard to figure out, but when people are primed with the answer, they are more likely to get it right. Would the metaphorical effect work in the other direction, from psychological state to sensory perception?

The researchers asked another group of subjects to sniff five different vials and attempt to label each smell. Half the time, they induced suspiciousness by having the experimenter say: “Obviously, it’s a very simple task and, you know, there’s … there’s nothing we’re trying to hide here.” The experimented would then spot a document on the table, whisk it away nervously, and repeat: “Sorry, it shouldn’t have been there. But … ahem … anyway. Where was I? Oh yes, it’s all very simple. There’s nothing we’re trying to hide or anything.”

Did subjects induced to be suspicious identify the fishy smell correctly more often? Yep.

21

This is a fun literature, but it has serious implications. It reveals that the associations we have in our minds impact how we perceive the world and each other.

Sociologists believe that, essentially, all of life is socially constructed, meaning that we collectively learn and internalize arbitrary connections between things—like being male and computing or being black and athleticism. These connections literally structure our brain, such that thinking about one is likely to trigger thoughts of the other.

Fishy and suspicious are connected in our minds and, so, when we are exposed to one, we are more likely to experience the other. In other cultures, Lee and Schwarz point out, it is not fishiness, but other smells that are associated with suspicion. These things are not natural or universal, but they drive our perceptions nonetheless.


This post originally appeared on Sociological Images, a Pacific Standard partner site, as “That’s Fishy: From Scent to Suspicion and Back.”

Lisa Wade
Lisa Wade, Ph.D., holds an M.S. and Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and an M.A. in Human Sexuality from New York University. She is an associate professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter @lisawade.

More From Lisa Wade

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 30 • 8:00 AM

The Psychology of Penmanship

Graphology: It’s all (probably) bunk.



September 30 • 6:00 AM

The Medium Is the Message, 50 Years Later

Five decades on, what can Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media tell us about today?


September 30 • 4:00 AM

Grad School’s Mental Health Problem

Navigating the emotional stress of doctoral programs in a down market.


September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference


September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.


September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.


September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.


September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.


September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.


September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.


September 26 • 2:00 PM

Why Liberals Love the Disease Theory of Addiction, by a Liberal Who Hates It

The disease model is convenient to liberals because it spares them having to say negative things about poor communities. But this conception of addiction harms the very people we wish to help.


September 26 • 1:21 PM

Race, Trust, and Split-Second Judgments


September 26 • 9:47 AM

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what’s new and different more attractive.


September 26 • 8:00 AM

A Letter Becomes a Book Becomes a Play

Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters From Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again takes 900 pages of correspondence between the two poets and turns them into an on-stage performance.


September 26 • 7:00 AM

Sonic Hedgehog, DICER, and the Problem With Naming Genes

Wait, why is there a Pokemon gene?


September 26 • 6:00 AM

Sounds Like the Blues

At a music-licensing firm, any situation can become nostalgic, romantic, or adventurous, given the right background sounds.


September 26 • 5:00 AM

The Dark Side of Empathy

New research finds the much-lauded feeling of identification with another person’s emotions can lead to unwarranted aggressive behavior.



September 25 • 4:00 PM

Forging a New Path: Working to Build the Perfect Wildlife Corridor

When it comes to designing wildlife corridors, our most brilliant analytical minds are still no match for Mother Nature. But we’re getting there.


September 25 • 2:00 PM

Fashion as a Inescapable Institution

Like it or not, fashion is an institution because we can no longer feasibly make our own clothes.


September 25 • 12:00 PM

The Fake Birth Mothers Who Bilk Couples Out of Their Cash by Promising Future Babies

Another group that’s especially vulnerable to scams and fraud is that made up of those who are desperate to adopt a child.


September 25 • 10:03 AM

The Way We QuickType


September 25 • 10:00 AM

There’s a Name for Why You Feel Obligated to Upgrade All of Your Furniture to Match

And it’s called the Diderot effect.


September 25 • 9:19 AM

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.


Follow us


Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

How a Second Language Trains Your Brain for Math

Second languages strengthen the brain's executive control circuits, with benefits beyond words.

Would You Rather Go Blind or Lose Your Mind?

Americans consistently fear blindness, but how they compare it to other ailments varies across racial lines.

On the Hunt for Fake Facebook Likes

A new study finds ways to uncover Facebook Like farms.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.