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The sweet smell of morality

February 15, 2010

Courtney Humphreys in The Boston Globe:

Can a clean smell make you a better person?

That’s the provocative suggestion of a recent study in the journal Psychological Science. A team of researchers found that when people were in a room recently spritzed with a citrus-scented cleanser, they behaved more fairly when playing a classic trust game. In another experiment, the smell of cleanser made subjects more likely to volunteer for a charity.

The findings suggest that simply smelling something clean makes people clean up their behavior – that a smell can provoke a mental leap between cleanliness and morality, making people think differently about the world around them. The authors even suggested that clean smells could be employed as a tool to influence how people act.

The idea that a smell can affect something as complex as ethical behavior seems surprising, not least because smell has long been seen as a “lower” sense, playing on our emotions and instincts while our reason and judgment operate on another plane. But research increasingly shows that smell doesn’t just affect how we feel: It affects how we think, in ways that are just beginning to be understood. [More]

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