Thursday, February 23, 2012
I recently blogged about a study linking personality to body odor. Specifically, people sniffing previously worn T-shirts could accurately estimate the wearer’s level of extraversion, neuroticism, and dominance. In other words, your BO contains clues to your personality.
It turns out that your personality is also related to your sense of smell. The Big Five theory of personality holds that agreeable people score highly on being “cooperative, considerate, empathic, generous and kind.” And according to a team of German sensory scientists, agreeable people also have greater odor sensitivity. That is to say, agreeableness as measured by the NEO-FFI questionnaire is positively correlated with lower thresholds for odor detection.
In addition, people who score highly on the Big Five factor of neuroticism, which tracks anxiety, hostility, depression, self-consciousness, impulsiveness and vulnerability to stress, tend to be more sensitive to trigeminal chemosensory stimulation, (aka the hot in chili pepper or the sting in ammonia).
Researchers in Dresden had 124 people fill out the NEO-FFI, a briefer form of the Big Five personality test. Then they ran the volunteers through a battery of sensory tests including odor, taste, trigeminal stimulation, pain, and electrical thresholds. There was a statistically non-significant tendency for highly conscientious people to have enhanced tolerance for pain. The taste measures—detection thresholds for perception of salty and sour—were unrelated to personality measures.
This is a well-executed and straightforward study: measure personality, measure sensory thresholds, and look for correlations. Therein lies the rub: correlations are just that—they do not prove causation. Nevertheless, the authors spend a lot of time editorializing for the idea that sensory thresholds determine the development of one’s personality. Perhaps. But the opposite case can also be made: that being considerate and empathic toward other people disposes one to develop more finely tuned sensory abilities.
Not to be disagreeable, but I’d trust their data and skip the sermon.
The study discussed here is “Agreeable smellers and sensitive neurotics—correlations among personality traits and sensory thresholds,” by Ilona Croy, Maria Springborn, Jörn Lötsch, Amy N.B. Johnston, and Thomas Hummel. It was published in PLoS One 6:18701, 2011, and is available here.