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How Scent Negatively Influences Behavior

By Paul Wonnacott

November 25, 2019


Since the beginning of human history, sense of smell has been key to our survival as human beings—we have the ability to sniff out potentially dangerous scents like spoiled food, smoke or gas. Sense of smell is incredibly important, yet it rarely gets the attention that it deserves.


Smells, also known as fragrances, have the ability to conjure up both positive and negative reactions in our mind. This is because the ‘smell cells’ in our nose are linked to the limbic system in our brain, which governs emotions, behavior and long-term memory.



But if our sense of smell is ‘set’ to make us aware of what’s dangerous and what’s not, how come some people may like a certain scent, and others may hate it?


It’s all to do with childhood memories. It’s a bit like the ‘nature vs nurture’ debate—some reactions to fragrance are instilled in us from birth, but some are learned. Childhood memories linked to scent stay with people throughout life—researchers and academics call this the “Proustian memory effect” due to its relation to elements in the writings of French author Marcel Proust.


In order for a fragrance or scent to have any sort of effect on you, either positive or negative, it has to have been subconsciously associated with some sort of previous event or experience. If a person has unknowingly connected a fragrance to a negative episode, they won’t like it when they come to smell it again. Many people don’t like the sterile smell of hospitals, because it only conjures up bad memories—although some could associate it with a positive memory, like giving birth to their son or daughter.


My son, Matt, isn’t particularly keen on the smell of the sea, after he was hit by a big wave while swimming off the Irish coast years ago when he was a young boy. War veterans will tell you that they dislike the smells of certain foods or chemicals which remind them of wartime in foreign places.


A study was conducted in the UK in the 1960s and the United States in the late 1970s in which adults were asked to rate a range of common fragrances. Included in the study was the smell of wintergreen, which was given one of the lowest pleasantness ratings in the British study. However, in the US study, it received the highest pleasantness rating.


But why? In the UK, the smell of wintergreen is associated with medicine, and, importantly, with analgesics that were popular during WWII. On the other hand, in the US the smell of wintergreen conjures up memories of mint candy which has positive connotations for Americans.



So how, as a company that deals with fragrance, can we appeal to everyone’s positive memories and not the negative ones? An important point is to look at the way we market our fragrances. For example, in studies, lavender is known to increase drowsiness, which could be seen as a bad thing, depending on the time of day. For example, if trying to increase productivity at work, lavender should not necessarily be your fragrance of choice due to its calming effects. However, if marketed as a night-time fragrance which helps someone drift happily off to sleep, lavender can be associated with positive outcomes.


With this in mind, knowing what smells conjure what memories in a particular society can help to market the appropriate smell for the appropriate purpose. Using the wrong smell for marketing purposes can have highly destructive effects for a marketing campaign, while the right smell can induce overwhelmingly positive associations in consumers with a particular product or service.


Paul Wonnacott is the President of Vectair Systems, Inc.