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Smell of Fear

April 1, 2009

Chemicals in sweat can influence our perception of others’ emotions.


Emotional cues from sweat. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Most people know fear when they see it. But what about when they smell it? Rice University psychologist Denise Chen and her colleagues decided to look into that, since many animals use chemical cues to communicate. They collected sweat from male donors while they watched either pleasant or scary videos. Then they asked women to judge the emotions of different faces, while smelling the sweat samples.

DENISE CHEN (Rice University):
When they smell the fearful sweat, they perceive ambiguous faces as more fearful. However, the fearful sweat had no effect if the faces were less ambiguous.

She says it’s not surprising that visual cues overrode the sweat scents, since humans can see much better than we can smell. However, the work suggests that chemical factors may affect how we perceive others’ emotions, especially when their faces and voices don’t give us much to go on. I’m Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.