Research Shows Link Between Odor and Behavior

The odor in a room is enough to elicit a stronger impulse towards fairness, researchers from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University have claimed. They believe their research proves there is a correlation between hygiene and decency, and that by improving our environment we can improve our behavior. The research found an increase in ethical behavior when the scent of a fruit scented cleaner fills a room.

Professor Adam Galinsky, the psychologist who conducted the study, said it shows “morality and cleanliness” are inextricably linked. “Researchers have known for years that scents play an active role in reviving positive or negative experiences. Now, our research can offer more insight into the links between people’s charitable actions and their surroundings.”

Katie Liljenquist, assistant professor of organizational leadership at Brigham Young University Marriott School of Management said: “This is a very simple, unobtrusive way to promote ethical behavior. The data tells us a compelling story about how much we rely upon cleanliness cues to make a wide range of judgments about others.”

The study, titled “The Smell of Virtue,” made subjects carry out several tasks, with some asked to work in unscented rooms, while others worked in rooms freshly sprayed with lemon scented cleaner.

The first experiment evaluated fairness. Participants were given $12 and were asked to decide how much of it to keep and how much to return to their partners who had trusted them to divide it fairly. Subjects in clean scented rooms were less likely to exploit the trust of their partners, returning a significantly higher share of the cash. The average amount of cash given back by the people in the “normal” room was $2.81. But the people in the clean scented room gave back an average of $5.33.

The second experiment evaluated whether clean scents would encourage charitable behavior. Subjects indicated their interest in volunteering and their interest in donating funds to a charitable cause. Participants surveyed in the clean smelling room were significantly more interested in volunteering (4.2 on a 7-point scale) than those in a normal room (3.3). Meanwhile, 22% of participants in the clean smelling room said they’d like to donate money, compared to only 6% of those in a normal room.

Follow up questions revealed that participants did not notice the aroma in the room and that their mood at the time of the experiment did not affect the outcomes.

Liljenquist was the lead author on the piece, which will appear in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science. Co-authors were Chen-Bo Zhong of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and Adam Galinsky of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. The researchers see implications for workplaces, retail stores, and other organizations that have relied on traditional surveillance and security measures to enforce rules.