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, Chlo√© Tuteleers, and Kirsten van Son, published online December 10, 2013 in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology. [doi: 10.1111/jasp.12203]

Monday, January 13, 2014

We Blame Al Gore

It’s the thirteenth of the month and time to round up the latest batch of lugubrious news stories involving foul odor and the overlooked corpse. It’s also January, which means it is awards season and time to present the 2013 Norman Bates Award™. [Was Jacqueline Bisset drunk, stoned or senile at last night’s Globes?—Ed.] [It doesn’t matter—for us she is always swimming in scuba gear and a T-shirt.]

Our news roundup is rather thin. In fact, the single item in it counts as an ISDP event only by inference. A 94-year-old woman living on a quiet street in Stockton, California evidently died of natural causes. Neither her family, who lived out of state, or her neighbors noticed her passing. Soon enough, however, burglars repeatedly broke into her home and ransacked its contents—while leaving her remains undisturbed. The case came to light when neighbors noticed that a door on the house was broken and called police. We presume that some of the burglars noticed a foul odor.

And now on to the awards program. Last year we had a robust competition with eight well-qualified nominees. We expected a bumper crop this year what with the relentless increase in anthropogenic global warming and the consequent rise in rates of bodily decomposition. Instead, it was so chilly we had nothing to report in February and we skipped the April edition altogether. During last week’s polar vortex the temperature at FirstNerve Manor dropped to 6°F. It was so cold we had to burn hundreds of pages from the IPCC report to keep warm, including a rare 1990 edition signed by Rajendra K. Pachauri.

This year we have only three nominees for the Norman Bates Award™ and we had to go all the way to Belgium for one of them. Candidate number one comes from Lakewood, New Jersey. Brian Cassidy used an ax and carpet cutter knife to kill his 61-year-old mother after an argument in the adult community where they lived, according to court records. Cassidy continued to live in the condo after his mother’s death, according to a knowledgeable source not authorized to speak on the record. His Batesian behavior was discovered by police after his mother’s concerned co-workers requested a welfare check on her behalf.

Given our famously strict standards, the demise of a University of Florida history professor didn’t quality as an ISDP event. The department chairman alerted police when the faculty realized their colleague hadn’t been seen for a week, and his body was discovered by campus police while making a wellness check. Officer Jessica Lynn Zarate noted in her report that after being admitted to the apartment by the deceased’s roommate, she “could smell a foul odor coming from upstairs.” Evidently the roommate hadn’t noticed it or didn’t think it was noteworthy and continued to inhabit the premises. The professor’s anonymous roommate is nominee number two.

Our third nominee is the Brussels widow who slept next to her husband’s mummified corpse for a year. According to a Belgian newspaper, her landlord made the macabre discovery during an eviction. Tests indicate her husband “died of natural causes a year ago.” The widow had told locals her husband, identified only as Marcel H., was away “receiving treatment.”

The professor’s anonymous roommate could have been anosmic or not home very much. And Mr. Cassidy is a solid nominee. But for sheer endurance and brazen misdirection, Madame H. of Brussels is the clear winner of the 2013 Norman Bates Award™. F√©licitations!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

California Dreamin’

This is what I’d be doing this weekend . . . if I was in L.A.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

British Smellscapes: Chips and Stale Ale

BBC contributor Ruth Margolis has moved from London to Brooklyn and offers a listicle of “10 British Smells You’ll Miss When You Leave the U.K.” Scent-minded Yankees can probably guess half of them.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Artsy-Fartsy Comedy

The Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art has launched a comedy series on its YouTube channel MOCAtv. This account by Deborah Vankin in the LAT makes it all sound a bit . . . conceptual; on the other hand it features Jack Black as a super-villain named Unidentifiable Odor. We sniff, you decide.