Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Sympathy for the Smelly

When you get a noseful of B.O. from the taxi driver, what do you feel: pity or disgust? Your answer will probably determine how you react to a new study by Jeroen Camps and colleagues at the University of Leuven in Belgium.

Camps, et al. looked at body odor as a means by which we evaluate other people and decide how to behave towards them. Their basic experimental procedure involved T-shirts: clean, neutral-smelling ones and ones made smelly by soaking them in “a solution of human sweat, beer, hydrogen sulfide, and fart spray.” (Scrummy!)

In an initial experiment, people sniffed a clean or stinky shirt and rated their perception of its owner (specifically, they were to imagine it belonging to someone with whom they had to work). The stinky shirts produced significantly higher agreement to two statements: “I feel sorry for the other person” and “I find the other pathetic.”

Relying on various results from social psychology, Camps, et al. reasoned that B.O.-evoked feelings of pity are likely to increase helping behavior and cooperation. To test this in a second experiment, they used the “ultimatum game,” one of those contrived situations social psychologists employ to measure helping behavior under laboratory conditions. In this game, the test subject is paired up with another student who, in reality, is a confederate of the researchers. The stooge wears either a clean or a stinky T-shirt. As predicted, people paired with a stinky stooge were more helpful (i.e., offered him more imaginary “credits”) than were people paired with a neutral-smelling confederate. The difference was statistically significant but rather small: it amounted to about an extra half a credit out of a possible eleven.

Having demonstrated that B.O.-evoked pity increases charity toward the stinky, Camps, et al. examined whether the effect depends on perceptions of personal responsibility. In other words, does it make a difference whether the malodor is or is not the stinky person’s fault?

In a third experiment, the stinky T-shirts were soaked in beer and booze. The cover story was that the confederate has been invited to a reception where alcohol was served (the “not my fault” condition), or that he had decided to go to a bar (the “my bad” condition). [My terms, not those of Camps, et al.] After some business with maze-tasks, the test subjects ended up playing the “ultimatum game” as in the previous experiment. The results: people donated more credits to the stooge in the stinky shirt; and overall they also donated less to stooges who had been “invited to a reception.”

But the most interesting result was the significant interaction effect. When dealing with a stooge in the “reception” condition, people were more generous to a smelly stooge than to a neutrally scented one. The reverse was true in the “bar” condition—people gave less to the smelly stooge and more to the neutral one. In other words, when the stinkiness was not seen as the person’s own fault, it evoked more pity and therefore more charity; when the stinkiness was self-inflicted there was less pity and less charity.

Camps, et al. believe their results are surprising: “our findings revealed that people with bad body odors are not always treated in an unfavorable way.” Fair enough. But let’s return to the original question: if you imagine your stinky taxi driver is doing his best hygiene-wise—working three jobs and living in a cold-water tenement—then you may feel pity. If you think B.O. is a disqualifying failure for a public service provider working in a closed space, then you may feel disgust.

Is it reasonable to draw inferences from this study for behavior outside of the psychology lab? I’m not enamored with the contrived game-scenarios of social psychology; they are fine as far as they go. However, this paper by Camps et al., suggests some interesting work to be done in the real world—I would love to see a field study based on these ideas. It would be easy enough to rig up an olfactory version of Taxicab Confessions: just put different odors in the ubiquitous dashboard air freshener.

The study discussed here is “Smells like cooperation? Unpleasant body odor and people’s perceptions and helping behaviors,” by Jeroen Camps, Jeroen Stouten, ChloĆ© Tuteleers, and Kirsten van Son, published online December 10, 2013 in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology. [doi: 10.1111/jasp.12203]


Kara C Hoover said...

An ideal field-based study would be interior Alaska where a large part of the population live in dry cabins (e.g., no running water + outhouse). The cost of living here is so high that even if living in a dry cabin is perceived as 'choice', that choice is likely dictated by finances. There are free showers a the uni and cheap showers at laundry mats for personal hygiene but when it is minus 40, people often can't the leave the cabin if the only heat source is wood. The dry-cabin smell is distinct and unpleasant but most people tolerate it because it how things are up here!

Avery Gilbert said...

Kara C Hoover:

A dry cabin in winter-time Alaska . . . wow, let me savor that smellscape for a moment.

Unavoidable circumstances that make everyone smelly also give everyone a ready-made excuse. (Crews on submarines, for example.) Still, I wonder if it's not possible to be extra-offensive even under such shared circumstances.

Salaam said...

I believe the whole test has been elaborated on a wrong assumtion. The answer of the people has to be interpreted with psychology. Most people who feel just aversion and repulsion for somebody's smell will not confess it because they know that it is primitive and unjust to pass a judgement on others on the basis of their appearance, be it olfactory. In fact they were not asked to evaluate the smell but the person itself, being asked how they felt about her.
In order to appear humane to the interviewers, they will say that they feel pity for the person, which is not a feeling of tenderness or of love, but rather a plain way of asserting one's superiority over the other. Saying that one feels pity for someone because he smells bad is a way to show contempt for him for not being up to one's own good standards, rather than manifesting tenderness and willingness to help. There is one English expression that says it: "To sniff at someone" defined in the dictionary: to show disdain, contempt, etc., by or as by sniffing. to show disdain, contempt, etc., by or as by sniffing.

Avery Gilbert said...


Good point. The setup in all three experiments is that the person evaluated is someone you have to work with. Most people will therefore politely hide their feelings of disgust. Instead, they express pity; which, as you point out, might have the flavor of condescension or contempt. Therefore, the study’s premise narrows its conclusions right from the beginning. In a sense, it begs the question. (A more interesting condition would be one involving no expectation of personal interaction with the smelly person.)

As to being charitable to a person who is smelly through no fault of his own—this hardly needs study. We excuse a baby that poops on itself; we don’t excuse a toxically drunk adult who does so.

AbdesSalaam Attar said...

Women must be genetically programmed to associate children's pooh and pipi in order to respond positively to them. In them are already present identification pheromones. (pheromones are of identification, alarm and sexual types)
Some animal pheromones of this type, like Ambergris and civet for "fecal" and Hyraceum for "urinary" may be able to trigger the maternal instinct in them, particularly the Hyraceum.

AbdesSalaam Attar said...

editing: Women must be genetically programmed to associate children's pooh and pipi to inherited memories of positive emotions...