A new study by researchers from Sweden and the UK has found that across almost a dozen different cultures, people’s favorite scent is vanilla, with peach a close second.
Likewise, the sweat-like odor of isovaleric acid was universally considered the worst smell.
The study, conducted together by scientists from the University of Oxford and the Karolinska Institutet, appeared in the journal Current Biology on April 4, 2022.
Contrary to expectations, the authors write, “culture explained only 6% of the variance in pleasantness rankings,” whereas personal taste explained 54%.
Mapping the word’s favorite scent
The study included 235 from nine non-Western cultures, ranging from Seri hunter-gatherers in Mexico to urban New Yorkers.
The rural participants, such as the Imbabura Quichua from Equador and the Mah Meri from Malaysia, mostly live in small villages.
Critically, many of these groups have had very little experience with typically Western foods or flavors.
The other urban participants in the study came from Mexico City and the Thai city of Ubon Ratchathani.
Scent preferences are similar around the world, despite differing cultural backgrounds
The researchers asked the participants to rank ten different smells based on how pleasant (or unpleasant) those smells were.
Those smells included isovaleric acid (which occurs in cheese and human sweat), caprylic acid (found in coconut oil), and galbazine (found in peanuts, grapes, and potatoes).
Other odors that were tested included phenethyl alcohol (found in roses and olive oil), eugenol (found in cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg), and vanillin (which occurs almost exclusively in vanilla orchids).
The results were surprisingly consistent around the world.
Although individual preferences varied, the nine cultures that were studied showed broadly similar results in terms of which odors are considered pleasant or unpleasant.
Traditionally, said lead researcher Artin Arshamian, these preferences have been seen as cultural, but this study shows “that culture has very little to do with it.”
Some scents were more popular than others, in other words, regardless of the participants’ cultural backgrounds.
“Cultures around the world rank different odors in a similar way, no matter where they come from,” said Arshamian.
Across cultures, vanilla was the favorite scent
Vanilla was the favorite scent among the participants, with peach (in the form of ethyl butyrate) a close second.
The worst smell that was tested was isovaleric acid, a sour smell that occurs in foods such as cheese, and apple juice, as well as in human (foot) sweat.
Arshamian said these results may have their distant roots in evolution: people may find some scents more pleasing than others is because those smells increased their survival chances.
Likewise, people may have evolved a distaste for smells that indicate mold, bacteria, etc.
As the authors write, these results show that “the perception of odor pleasantness is largely independent of cultural factors,” such as the local source of food.
These preferences can also be predicted from the chemical properties of the smells themselves.
Around the world, the authors conclude, the “relative pleasantness” of scents seems to be equally strong.
“This is striking,” they write, and is contrary to what would have been predicted from a cultural relativity perspective.”
Study: “The perception of odor pleasantness is shared across cultures”
Authors: Artin Arshamian, Richard C. Gerkin, Nicole Kruspe, Ewelina Wnuk, Simeon Floyd, Carolyn O’Meara, Gabriela Garrido Rodriguez, Johan N. Lundström, Joel D. Mainland, and Asifa Majid.
Published in: Current Biology
Publication date: April 4, 2022
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