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Before 8 a.m. EST Sunday, April 13, 2003

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Odors summon emotion and influence behavior, new study says

Psychologist Rachel S. Herz found that college students stymied by a computer game exhibited their frustration during a later word test when they were in a room with the same scent. Herz will present her study at the annual meeting of the Association for Chemoreception Sciences (AChemS) April 13, 2003, at 8 a.m.

SARASOTA, Fla. — College students frustrated by playing a rigged computer game in a scented room later exhibited that frustration when they inhaled the same smell, according to a new study by a Brown University psychologist.

The study provides further evidence for a growing body of research that indicates emotions can become conditioned to odors and subsequently influence behavior, according to Rachel S. Herz, assistant professor of psychology at Brown, who will present her research at the annual meeting of the Association for Chemoreception Sciences at 8 a.m. Sunday, April 13, 2003, in Sarasota, Fla.

Sixty-three female undergraduates at Brown University participated in the two-pronged study, which used novel scents developed in a laboratory so that the students would not have any previous emotional connections to them. Any potential subjects who noted that a scent “reminded” them of another smell did not take part.

In the first portion of the study, half of the participants were asked to play a computer game that, unbeknownst to them, was designed so that they could not win. During that time, the students were exposed to a novel odor. Then they were given a 20-minute break.

Following the break, the students were taken to a different room and given a set of word tests. Participants took the tests in one of three rooms: a room containing the same scent as the room in which they played the computer game; a room with a different, novel scent; or a room without scent.

Participants who performed the word tests in a room with the scent from the computer game room spent significantly less time working on the problems than participants in the other rooms, said Herz. (Researchers used the time spent on the problems, not the test scores, as a measure of frustration because they anticipated correctly that scores would be similar based on the intellectual ability of the students.)

Overall, those participants who took the tests in the room with the computer-game room scent demonstrated less persistence – spending less time on each of the problems they could not solve – than the people who had taken the word tests in the rooms with a different odor or no odor at all.

“Compromised by the emotion of frustration that was induced by the odor, they showed an unwillingness to work on a challenging task,” said Herz.

The second portion of the study confirmed the ability to create a connection between an emotion and scent. Instead of a frustrating computer game, the other half of the participants watched a neutral video in the scented room. Those later given word tests in a room with the same scent did not register any difference in performance compared to groups taking the tests in rooms with a different scent or no scent.

Herz led the research with assistance from Corrente Schankler, a student, and Sophia Beland, a staff member, in the Brown University Department of Psychology, with supplies donated by AromaSys Inc. Females were studied because previous research has suggested that there may be stronger effects of emotional conditioning in women.