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Scientists and psychologists maintain that exposure to a well-chosen scent can make us more productive. The only drawback is that there’s no accounting for tastes. By Matt Burgess
On a bright day in early 1990, 36 men and women from Cincinnati – all of whom had responded to the same newspaper ad – were paid $15 each to take turns sitting inside a modified sound chamber. Measuring just under 2 x 2 x 2m, the confined box was a testing ground for the impact that smell can have on a person’s ability to concentrate. Fresh air was blown into the chamber through a ceiling fan and an electronic air cleaner made sure what was already in there was cleansed.
Once inside, each participant was fitted with a mask. Around four and a half minutes into the 40 minutes of testing, air would be pumped through the mask and the action would be repeated every five minutes for the remainder of the person’s time inside the box. The air being delivered right under people’s noses had one of three scents: peppermint, muguet (a variant of the lily of the valley flower) and plain air.
As each person was subjected to the smells, they were asked to pay attention to what was happening on an early Apple IIe computer. Those getting whiffs of peppermint and muguet paid greater attention than those just getting blasts of unscented air. “These findings suggest that exposure to fragrance may serve as an effective form of ancillary stimulation in tasks demanding close attention for prolonged periods of time,” wrote the scientists behind the study. The research was some of the first to link human capabilities directly to smell.
Does smell sell?
More than two decades on, the science of smell – known officially as the olfactory system – has come a long way. Around 1,000 different genes are contained in olfactory receptors, which pass messages to the brain and allow humans to recognise and remember around 10,000 different odours. A greater understanding of how smell works and its importance has led to businesses trying to exploit it. Marketers can sell with scent.
“Many hotels have a branded scent, which means that you can go to one of their hotels anywhere in the world and it will smell the same,” says Kathleen Riach, an associate professor at Monash University’s Department of Management, who has researched the impact of smells on individuals. North Carolina-based ScentAir says more than 2,400 of its fragrances are used by businesses in 109 countries around the world.
It lists vehicle manufacturer BMW and sportswear firm Under Armour alongside funeral homes, animal hospitals and casinos, all of which are using its smells. A smell for any occasion can be purchased. AromaPrime, a UK-based firm, sells luxury smells but also offers museums niche odours such as: unicorn, ship’s engine room and rotting flesh.
With such a range of smells available and a growing body of scientific evidence that smells can alter people’s moods and actions, it comes as no surprise that employers have become interested in scent. As far back as 2006, The Guardian reported that a firm called C-Interactive accredited increased sales and reduced staff absenteeism to its introduction of aroma machines(1).
“Smells affect human behaviour by warning people of dangers, but also by affecting cognitive performance,” explains Derek Clements-Croome, from the University of Reading’s School of Construction Management and Engineering. Meanwhile, psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist Rachel Herz has written in Scientific American that “odours do affect people’s mood, work performance and behaviour in a variety of ways.”(2)
Scents and sensibility
Different smells can create a variety of effects both inside and outside the workplace. “There is a lot of research showing that smells influence behaviours,” adds Sam Warren, a professor in management at Cardiff Business School. “Peppermint has been found to increase mental recall/clarity, citrus smells promote altruism and lavender reduces anxiety.” Therefore, introducing these into office spaces may help to enhance how productive employees are. Small amounts of odours being released around a worker could lead to a temporary boost in efficiency. The technology exists to allow personalised scents to be released around individual employees – one person may respond well to peppermint, another may see cognitive improvement from a citrus aroma.
“We see some manufacturers in Japan pump in lemon-scented smells to ‘pep up’ their workers, while there have also been cases of peppermint used in classrooms to help students’ attention spans,” Riach says. In one widely cited study, the Japanese Takasago Corporation found its typists made 54 per cent fewer errors when they could smell lemon, 33 per cent fewer when the smell of jasmine was present and 30 per cent when lavender was hitting their nostrils.
Productivity is also impacted by air conditions that aren’t directly linked to smell. A 2015 study(3) led by Harvard University professors saw 24 people spend six full working days in an environmentally controlled office space, with different levels of carbon dioxide being added to the air. The results saw a 61 per cent increase in cognitive function when the employees were exposed to greener conditions.
But, when it comes to artificial smells, there aren’t necessarily any easy productivity-boosting tricks that can help across entire offices. Simply pumping in wafts of jasmine doesn’t mean people exposed to it will increase their productivity. “Odours are the garden of memories,” says Clements-Croome. Warren explains that smell is directly connected to the brain’s limbic system – which deals with emotions, memories and arousal. “It is almost hard-wired to recall ancient memories very instantly, even if we can’t quite place those memories when we smell something,” Warren says.
This means it’s possible – based on their individual memories – for one person to react well to a smell, while for another the same scent may cause a negative impact. “You can put headphones on to block out sound (if you are in an office) and you can close your eyes to avoid seeing something, but smell enters your body through the nose and mouth as you breathe so it’s very invasive,” Warren says.
Riach goes further, warning employers to be cautious about installing office-wide odour systems. “Employees are increasingly sensitive to feeling ‘duped’ by their employers, so trying to use smell may be seen as manipulative and lead to questions over unethical practices and a cynicism from employees,” she says. For smell, personal is the way to go.
Matt Burgess is an award-winning British journalist and author working for Wired magazine in the UK