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Can Your Olfactory Senses Pick Your Friends?

By: Felicia Chen

Crammed into a roomful of individuals bearing eccentric odors, the specific smells people give off may mean something special to others. As a result, scientists who study human olfaction, or an individual’s sense of smell, wonder if, when someone’s skin molecules waft into the air, will they subconsciously trigger something in the noses and brains of people around them? Are smells bearing messages that people unconsciously use in decisions? Is it possible that a person’s scent may be one of the factors that decides whom they do and don’t like to spend time around?

In a small study published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, “researchers investigating pairs of friends whose friendship ‘clicked’ from the beginning found intriguing evidence that each person’s body odor was closer to their friend’s than expected by chance,” writes Veronique Greenwood, a writer for the New York Times. “And when the researchers got pairs of strangers to play a game together, their body odors predicted whether they felt they had a good connection.”

People’s aromas may be a factor in whether people become friends. Many other elements come into play as well, including how, when, or where we meet a new person. Nonetheless, researchers have suggested that one thing people pick up on is how others smell. Scientists who study friendships have found that friends have more in common than strangers – in terms of genetics, patterns of brain activity, and appearance; not just things like age and hobbies.

Inbal Ravreby, a graduate student in the lab of Noam Sobel, was an olfaction researcher at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and was particularly interested in the role our sense of smell has in swift friendships, the kind that seem to form in an instant.

She experimented with twenty pairs of so-called “click friends,” pairs of friends who both characterized their friendship this way. Then Ms. Ravreby put them through a regimen comprised of the following: 1) Stop eating food with strong odors such as onions and garlic; 2) Do not use after-shave or deodorant; 3) Bathe with unscented soap provided by the lab; and 4) Put on a freshly-cleaned T-shirt that is also provided by the lab and sleep in it until it smells like the participant before handing it to the scientists for review.

To review the fragrance of each T-shirt, Ms. Ravreby and her colleagues used an electric nose to examine and assess the volatiles rising from each T-shirt. Additionally, 25 other volunteers assessed the similarity of the smells.

“It’s very probable that at least some of them were using perfumes when they met,” Ms. Ravreby speculated. “But it did not mask whatever they had in common.”

The results scientists collected showed that, strikingly, the similarities between two people’s odors predicted whether both felt there had been a positive connection. This occurred 71 percent of the time. This implies that when someone sniffs a smell similar to their own body odor, it generates a happy feeling.


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