Smell, Preference and Prejudice

People like simple answers, but reality isn’t. Simple answers are at best half-truths, if ben_franklinthey contain any truth at all.

As an example, take the on-going controversy over gay marriage. What actually determines who you love? Is that a matter of genetics or choice? The complete answer is “both.”

Gay relationships are a subset of the broader issue of how people relate to others.  The broader issue impacts so many aspects of daily life. How much of your feelings towards others are based on fact versus underlying preferences of which you may be largely unaware?

Here’s an overview of what we know about how people react to others:

  • Personal scent is an important factor in sexual attraction.(1)”We each broadcast a unique odor print that tells a potential partner quite a bit about our suitability, and women are particularly adept at sniffing out these signals.”
  • In a recent study, researchers in Poland found that smell can indicate how healthy and fertile a person is.(2)
  • Smell can also affect a person’s mood, which can increase or decrease sexual attraction.(3)

The most recent study addresses “imprinting”  — that is, how a newborn (human or other animal) distinguishes family from non-family and safe from un-safe. Researchers at the UC San Diego worked with animals to identify two neurotransmitters involved in reactions to others:

  • Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Dopamine also helps regulate movement and emotional responses, and it enables us not only to see rewards, but to take action to move toward them. Dopamine deficiency results in Parkinson’s Disease, and people with low dopamine activity may be more prone to addiction. The presence of a certain kind of dopamine receptor is also associated with sensation-seeking people, more commonly known as “risk takers.” (5)
  • Gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, is a neurotransmitter that sends chemical messages through the brain and the nervous system, and is involved in regulating communication between brain cells. The role of GABA is to inhibit or reduce the activity of the neurons or nerve cells. GABA plays an important role in behavior, cognition, and the body’s response to stress. (6) (The acronym GABA is also used for an oral supplement, not the focus here.)

In work conducted over the last 8 years, the University of California researchers identified dopamine as dominant when an animal is dealing with family and others considered safe, and GABA as dominant with non-family and strangers.(4)  Neurotransmitter switching is an automatic process that affects how we deal with others.

The researchers also state that if a young animal is exposed to other people with different scents at a very early age, those people and scents will be included in the family/safe group.

Can you learn to like people later in life who have very different scents? Yes, you can. Apparently, it’s possible to override these built-in preferences. However, since humans vary so much, it’s likely that these built-in preferences are much stronger in some people than in others.

Knowing that these built-in preferences exist doesn’t justify behavior. When you meet someone new, you need to understand why your initial reaction is what it is and then make a conscious decision to control it.

This is a special problem in the US, which is a highly segregated society. Modern segregation is based on economics rather than race, and is just as effective as racial segregation in keeping different types of people apart. If anything, segregation is increasing.(7)

What I see as a market researcher is a growing inability of marketing and product managers in corporations to relate to people whose lives are very different from theirs. They make silly assumptions like “oh, everyone has a smart phone.” No, they don’t. If you build a mobile marketing campaign for your product, you may completely miss most of your prospective buyers.


  1. Jan Welters, “Love Is in the Air,” Men’s Journal, 5 September 2009.
  2. Victor Allen, “Forget good looks… love is in the air! How you smell is the REAL key to sexual attraction,” The Daily Mail, 2 September 2017.
  3. Social Issues Research Centre, “The Smell Report,” undated.
  4. Davide Dulcis et al. Neurotransmitter Switching Regulated by miRNAs Controls Changes in Social Preference. Neuron, August 2017 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2017.08.023
  7. Richard Florida, How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class — and What We Can Do About It, Basic Books, 2017.
  8. University of California – San Diego. “Scents and social preference: Neuroscientists ID the roots of attraction: Neurotransmitters and microscopic regulators found at the core of kinship.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 31 August 2017. <>.

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