Does the nose know best when it comes to love?

Audrey Noble
Apr 20, 2021 @ 5:35 pm
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how pheromones affect attraction
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A partner's scent was never high on my list of priorities when looking for my soulmate. They should smell clean, obviously, but it wasn't until two years ago when I met someone whose personal scent was so attractive to me that I now find myself quizzing dates on what cologne they're wearing. 

My former partner smelled fresh and airy, while still being comfortably warm. It wasn't just the Kiehl's moisturizer he'd recently discovered or the Dove body wash in his bathroom. If I could capture what being hugged while looking out at the ocean at sunset could smell like, he would be it. Back then, I found myself completely enamored by someone I barely knew and even the most mundane interactions made me the personified version of the emoji with heart eyes. It made me wonder, is this pheromone theory of attraction a real thing? 

Pheromones and scent have long been part of the discussion of attraction and romance. If you could wear a scent to attract your dream partner, wouldn't you? I know I would. I'd also be willing to bet that many others feel the same. But what smell has to do with our romantic partners and how we feel about them (and vice versa) has been long debated.

We spoke to Pamela Dalton, a cognitive psychologist at Monell Chemical Senses Center (MCSC), to learn everything about pheromones and how they may—or may not—play a role in how we attract romantic partners.

What are pheromones?

how pheromones affect attraction

Pheromones are particular chemicals that are emitted by one sex of species that trigger a response from the other. In MCSC's study, Charles J. Wysocki and George Preti write "Facts, fallacies, fears, and frustrations of human pheromones are of variable importance to social communication" in animals. But in humans, it's more complicated. 

The study classifies pheromones into four different categories: primers, signalers, modulators, and releasers. It states that "despite some uncertainty regarding the actual mechanism of pheromone reception, there is good evidence for at least certain pheromonal effects in humans." Examples include effects on the menstrual cycle (primer), when a newborn recognizes its mother through olfactory recognition (signalers), and when one's mood is lifted by a scent (modulator).

Dalton adds that there is chemical communication between people by the body odors that we give off. These odors may be general signs of health or well-being. She says some of them can even be specific signals about people's immune systems. But these signals don't necessarily work the same it does in animals. 

"It seems that we are emitting chemicals quite frequently that can be picked up by other individuals that are around us," she says. "But we have a hard time calling them pheromones because they don't always elicit the same response to everyone." 

Preti and Wysocki's study concludes that while there is some pheromone-like activity in the human body, "there is no good evidence for releaser effects" in humans. "It is emphasized that no bioassay-guided study has led to the isolation of true human pheromones, a step that will elucidate specific functions to human chemical signals," the study states. 

So, simply put, you can emit certain chemicals, but there will only be certain people that may respond to them or even be aware of them. "We have to acknowledge that we are more complicated," says Dalton. "We're using more than just a chemical attractant or a repellent to decide whether to move forth in a relationship with someone." 

How do pheromones affect attraction? 

Since pheromone attraction has been proven to be prevalent in animals, it's only natural to wonder if the same can be said of humans. However, a lot of experts say more studies need to be done to definitively make a connection between the two. 

"There is not a single chemical signal [in humans] that will do this, but it became very convenient to call this a pheromone, even though it did not meet the strict definition of what a pheromone was in other species," says Dalton. 

She adds that women pick up more of those signals than men do, therefore they are probably basing mating choices off of these chemicals. "The idea that females have to be more selective about [mating] means that they would probably be paying attention to not only what they can see and what they hear from the common, but what they're smelling or what they're perceiving in terms of the chemical communication."

how pheromones affect attraction
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A loss of smell, especially with it being one of the longer-lasting side effects of COVID-19, may not matter in terms of attraction. She explains that this shouldn't be a concern since we still don't know if we have this conscious awareness of "pheromones" in our bodies. But again, she says there needs to be more proof before saying pheromones have any effect on sexual attraction. 

Can we wear pheromones? Can certain scents make you more attractive? 

If pheromones in humans are up for debate, so is the idea of wearing them. Numerous personal essays have been written about the popular Athena Pheromone, a fragrance additive that claims to contain pheromones so that you "increase your sex appeal." Fragrance in general has been marketed for years as an aphrodisiac, but the validity of either one has never been proven.  

Dalton, along with Jessica M. Gaby, published a study in 2019 to see if perfume could alter the perception or awareness of body odor. Here, samples of body odor were collected from a group of people. Then those same people would put on perfume and those samples were taken to see if the perfume could mask the smell. 

In the end, they concluded that those who were previously conditioned to pick up on body odor could still smell it through the perfume. "It seems like the signal that comes from an individual, that is unique, is persistent even if you put tons of cologne or perfume over it," Dalton says. 

Fragrance and cologne are a personal choice for those who wear them, but it's also a personal choice for those smelling it when it comes to preference. "I don't think there is a scent that is going to be universally [attractive]; we can never find something that is universally attractive for anyone," she says. 

However, that doesn't mean wearing a certain scent is useless when it comes to dating and love. If someone already finds you attractive, your favorite scent is going to probably boost that attraction. A potential partner will probably think of you when smelling that particular scent. 

how pheromones affect attraction
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Furthermore, while Dalton says she cannot speak to those "pheromones in a bottle," she is skeptical. She says that she doesn't know much about the Athena Pheromone, but she suspects some sort of placebo effect is most likely playing a part in its appeal.

"If I give you a bottle that says, 'This is going to enhance your attractiveness to people,' it's going to change the way you present yourself," she says. "You're going to feel more self-confident, maybe more outgoing. Your whole personality could change [and]—as a consequence—make you more attractive. Then you attribute that to what you sprayed on your body two hours earlier."