Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Findings

pigpen-2

Pig-Pen from the Peanuts comic strip. (Photo: Courtesy of Universal Uclick)

The Upside of Body Odor

• January 06, 2014 • 7:00 AM

Pig-Pen from the Peanuts comic strip. (Photo: Courtesy of Universal Uclick)

New research suggests a lack of personal hygiene can inspire feelings of pity and generosity.

If you find yourself in close contact with someone reeking of body odor—say, in a subway car, or supermarket checkout line—your initial response is probably to turn away. But that doesn’t mean your attitude toward the pungent-smelling person is harsh or disparaging.

To the contrary, malodorous strangers can elicit pity and inspire generosity—so long as we believe their unpleasant aroma is due to circumstances beyond their control.

That’s the conclusion of a research team from the University of Leuven in Belgium, led by psychologist Jeroen Camps. “Contrary to what one might intuitively expect,” the researchers write in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, “our findings revealed that people with bad body odors are not always treated in an unfavorable way.”

Camps and his colleagues describe three experiments backing up their thesis. In the first, 36 participants were asked to sniff either a neutral- or foul-smelling T-shirt, and imagine “it belonged to a person with whom they had to work.”

“The bad smell was obtained by soaking the T-shirt in a solution of human sweat, beer, hydrogen sulfide and fart spray,” they note.

“Contrary to what one might intuitively expect, our findings revealed that people with bad body odors are not always treated in an unfavorable way.”

Afterward, the participants responded to a series of statements designed to reveal their attitudes toward the imaginary person in the shirt. The researchers found those who had smelled the stinky shirt expressed more pity for the wearer than those who had inspected the clean garment.

But do such feelings change anyone’s behavior? That was the focus of the second experiment, which featured 62 undergraduates. Each was assigned to complete a maze while seated next to a fellow student. Half of those partners wore a clean shirt, while the others wore the foul-smelling one used in the first experiment.

Afterward, participants moved by themselves into another room and played an “ultimatum game,” in which they were asked to divide credits between themselves and their partner. “Each credit gave them a chance of winning a movie ticket, so credits were valuable,” the researchers note.

Perhaps surprisingly, they found “participants who worked with an unpleasant-smelling other donated more credits to this person than participants in the control condition,” To the researchers, this suggests “there are situations in which a person’s unpleasant body odor increases others’ helping behaviors toward this person.”

The third and final experiment, featuring 42 undergraduates, used a different odor, and raised the issue of personal responsibility. When each participant arrived at the test site, he or she was told they had to wait for a second person to arrive before the experiment could begin.

After 10 minutes, the research partner showed up. Half the time, he or she wore a neutral T-shirt; on the other occasions, “the T-shirt was drenched in a solution of alcohol and beer.”

Asked why he or she was tardy, the latecomer gave one of two responses: Either they had stopped by a bar because they wanted a drink, or they had been invited to a reception. Afterward, the experiment proceeded along the lines of the previous one, with the two sitting side by side completing a maze, and the participant then deciding how many credits to allocate to his or her partner.

Once again, “participants donated more credits to a person with bad-smelling body odor,” the researchers write. However, that dynamic was reversed among those who were told their bad-smelling partner voluntarily stopped off at a bar (as opposed to feeling compelled to attend the reception). Such people received fewer credits than their neutral-smelling counterparts.

“If the person was held responsible for his own body odor, people were less likely to help if (s)he smelled bad,” the researchers explain. “In a situation that discounted the person’s responsibility for his/her body odor, however, participants were more likely to help.”

The researchers concede that their experiments did not precisely duplicate real-life experiences. For one thing, “participants were not at risk of being exposed to this bad-smelling other for a second time.” It’s conceivable that regular, ongoing exposure to bad body odor could change that pity into annoyance.

Nevertheless, the results suggest that if someone smells bad, people often instinctively (in-stink-tively?) respond with kindness and concern. So if you just dropped a $20 bill into a homeless person’s hat and later wondered why—well, perhaps it’s been a long time since that panhandler had a bath.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

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

Recent Posts

October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.


October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.


October 28 • 2:00 PM

And You Thought Your Credit Card Debt Was Bad

In Niagara County, New York, leaders took on 40-year debt to pay for short-term stuff, a case study in the perverse incentives tobacco bonds create.



October 28 • 10:00 AM

How Valuable Is It to Cure a Disease?

It depends on the disease—for some, breast cancer and AIDS for example, non-curative therapy that can extend life a little or a lot is considered invaluable. For hepatitis C, it seems that society and the insurance industry have decided that curative therapy simply costs too much.


October 28 • 8:00 AM

Can We Read Our Way Out of Sadness?

How books can help save lives.


Follow us


We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

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