Dec. 4, 2011 at 10:49 AM ET
By Rachel Rettner
Getting to know someone usually requires at least a little conversation. But a new study suggests you can get a hint of an individual's personality through his or her scent alone.
Participants in the study assessed, with some degree of accuracy, how outgoing, anxious or dominant people were after only taking a whiff of their clothes. The study is the first to test whether personality traits can be discerned through body odor.
While the match-up between responses by the judges and the judged were not perfect, they do suggest that, when forming a first impression, we take into account a person's smell, as well as visual and audible cues to their personality traits, the researchers said.
We not only express ourselves through our looks, "we also express ourselves with how we smell," said study researcher Agnieszka Sorokowska, a doctoral candidate at the University of Wroclaw, in Poland.
The study will be published in an upcoming issue of the European Journal of Personality.
Sorokowska and colleagues asked 30 men and 30 women to don white cotton t-shirts for three consecutive nights. Participants could not use fragrances, deodorants or soaps, and could not smoke or drink or eat odorous foods during the study. Participants also took a personality test.
Shirts from the "odor donors" were collected and rated by 100 men and 100 women. Raters were asked to smell the shirts (placed in non-transparent plastic bags) and evaluate five personality traits of the donors, on a scale of one to 10. Each rater assessed six shirts, and each shirt was assessed by 20 raters.
The judges' ratings matched up with the self-assessments of the donors for three personality traits: extroversion (the tendency to be outgoing and sociable) neuroticism (the tendency to feel anxious and moody) and dominance (the urge to be a leader).
The matches were far from perfect. But the raters predicted the donor's level of extroversion and neuroticism through smell about as accurately as participants in a different study predicted personality traits based on a video depicting a person's behavior, Sorokowska said.
Judgments of dominance were most accurate in the case where an individual rater was assessing the odor of someone who was the opposite sex, suggesting such judgments are especially important when it comes to choosing a mate, the researchers said.
Extroversion, neuroticism and dominance are all traits that may, to some extent, be expressed physiologically, including through our emotions.
For instance, people who are neurotic may sweat more when they experience stress, which would modify the bacteria in their underarms and make them smell different, the researchers said.
Personality traits may also be linked with the secretion of hormones that could alter a persons' scent. People who are high in dominance may have higher levels of testosterone, which in turn may modify their sweat glands, the researchers said.
The findings are preliminary and more studies need to be done to confirm the results, Sorokowska said. It's not clear whether the same link would be found in other cultures known to have weaker body odors, Sorokowska said.
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