Smells like virtue
People in clean-smelling environments donate their time and money more, according to research at Brigham Young University.
Fri, Oct 30, 2009 at 06:27 PM
Photo: Getty Images
Clean-smelling places can make people more virtuous, according to recent research reported on by MSNBC.
Researchers at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, recently found that people in rooms that smell of citrus tend to donate their money and time more often than people in unpleasant-smelling rooms.
The study, titled The Smell of Virtue, involved about 130 male and female undergraduate students who were divided into two rooms — one unscented and one sprayed with citrus-scented Windex — to conduct two experiments.
“We wondered if you could regulate moral behavior through cleanliness and decided to look at olfaction and clean scents,” said Katie Liljenquist, lead author of the study. “And at some level, it does seem to elevate people’s core choices. These clean scents activate moral awareness.”
In the first experiment, the participants were given $12 cash and told that they were expected to divide it fairly, without any supervision.
Surprisingly, the students in the clean-smelling room returned almost twice as much money as those in the room that had no scent.
The second experiment revealed similar results. Upon being asked if they would like to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, participants in the clean-smelling room were more willing to volunteer both time and money to the cause.
Though unmentioned in the article, the experiment is somewhat reminiscent of the Broken Windows Theory, which surmises that cleaning up vandalism like broken windows will deter further criminal behavior. Used in the 1980s by then-NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani to help clean up the city’s crime, the theory has been widely contested ever since, but Liljenquist’s research seems to suggest otherwise.
At the very least, Liljenquist hopes that the research will prove useful for those in the workplace as well as for businesses that cater to the public.
“Evidence suggests that money could be better spent on lemon-scented air fresheners or janitorial services than on costly surveillance systems,” Liljenquist told MSNBC. “It could deter theft among customers and encourage pro-social behavior in the workplace.”
Dr. Alan Hirsch, founder and neurological director of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, seemed to agree with the findings.
“It goes along with literature in the past that suggests pleasant odors tend to induce positive moods,” he said. “When you’re in a positive mood, you tend to be more generous.”
Unpleasant odors, on the other hand, can actually make people more aggressive, said Hirsch.
“We looked at a school across the street from a mulching site,” he says. “And on days when the bad smells would waft across the street to the school, there was an increase in behavioral problems in the kids.”
As for what brand of cleaner is most likely to replicate the results, Liljenquist was quick to point out that the study is not advocating one brand over another and that the fact that they used Windex for the experiment is purely coincidental.
“There was a Walgreen’s near the campus and we bought what was handy on the shelf that was citrus-scented," she said. "It just happened to be Windex.”