Thursday, January 22, 2009

Scent & Separation

A question for the ladies: Have you ever sniffed your man’s shirt to remember him while he was away? And have you ever worn it to bed for the same reason?

If so, you are not alone. That’s according to a new study by University of Pittsburgh psychology professor Donald McBurney and his colleagues Melanie Shoup and Sybil Streeter. They found that 77.1% of women have deliberately smelled another’s clothing to remember or feel closer to that person. And 81.8% of the time that other person was her romantic partner (BF, fiancé, or husband).

Similarly, 52.5% of women have slept with (or worn to sleep) another’s unlaundered clothing, which 89.4% of the time belonged to the men in their lives.

I don’t think anyone is surprised that women indulge in scentimental sniffing. However, the Pittsburgh results show that 66.7% of men sniff to remember, a proportion not statistically different from the 77.1% of women.

MSNBC contributor Linda Carroll found this to be quite remarkable. In reporting the study she wrote:
Even more striking was the data on men: A full two-thirds
of men admitted to cuddling with clothing.
The MSNBC headline stressed the same thing:
Going out of town? Leave your shirt behind.
Study: Most men and women snuggle the clothes of
far-away loved ones.

I think these characterizations are simply wrong. Linda Carroll and MSNBC distort the study results to hype the counter-intuitive image of guys curled up with their girlfriends’ clothes. True, two-thirds of men “admitted” to sniffing—but sniffing is not cuddling. In this context, cuddling is sleeping with, or wearing to bed, someone else’s clothing. And here McBurney’s results are clear: men don’t do it. Only 13.3% of men took another’s clothes to bed, compared to 52.5% of women.

In other words, scentimental cuddling is a female behavior by a four-to-one margin. When it comes to sniffing to remember, both sexes do it but women more often than men. (In an earlier version of the study the Pittsburgh team found that the female bias was statistically significant;
in the replication it was not. The difference apparently depends on the wording of the question.)

The new study adds a twist to the story, namely the relationship distance between sniffer and sniffee. Smelling and sleeping with someone else’s clothing happens most often when the sniffee is a first degree relative; it happens progressively less often with second and third degree relatives:
people commonly smell not only the clothing of their
sexual partners, but also that of close relatives.
In their earlier paper, McBurney et al. found that
smelling an absent partner’s clothing made [men and
women] feel happy, comfortable, and secure.
They coined the phrase “olfactory comfort” to describe the phenomenon. It captures nicely the wide range of circumstances where it occurs: a young man smells his recently deceased grandfather’s jacket, for example, or a mother leaves one of her shirts to soothe her baby at daycare.

Come to think of it, olfactory comfort may be self-induced. Perhaps the charm of a child’s teddy bear or security blanket is that it smells like the owner.

UPDATE January 23, 2009
Here’s a clever practical application of the “olfactory comfort” phenomenon. In today’s Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Allison Heinrichs describes how babies in the neonatal intensive care unit are given dolls with their mothers’ scent. The dolls, called Snoedels (Dutch for “snuggle”), are made of wool and flannel. The mother keeps the doll on her person for a couple of days, then leaves it with her newborn in the Isolette. I like the concept: at best it calms the baby, at worst it humanizes the ICU basinette.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I also love scented love with e-mails, msn and skype we don't get to smell romance anymore...