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Smell preferences, political views linked, study suggests

Research participants favored body odors of people with similar political ideologies

When individuals on opposite ends of the political spectrum say that their opponent stinks, they might mean it quite literally. According to a new study led by Rose McDermott, professor of political science, people are more attracted to the smell of people who share their political ideology.

In the study, subjects wore gauze pads beneath their underarms for 24 hours, during which time they were required to use fragrance-free soap and could not eat certain foods, McDermott said. Following that period of time, the researchers collected odor samples from the pads into vials, which were then presented to over 100 separate subjects who rated which odors they preferred, she added.

The researchers recruited participants who held extreme political beliefs, either liberal or conservative, she said.

The results showed that, overall, subjects were more attracted to the samples of people with the same political beliefs. But subjects were unable to consciously identify the political ideology of a person based on their smell when questioned about it, McDermott said.

In general, people prefer mates with similar preferences and attitudes, which is a sociological phenomenon known as “assortative mating,” the authors of the paper wrote. According to the paper, it has been a well-established finding that humans base their choices of mates on political attitudes more than almost any other social, behavioral or physical trait. But the exact method by which people do this is not yet completely understood, McDermott said.

Throughout evolutionary history, certain organisms have been able to differentiate mates by smelling pheromones, which can signal the strength of an animal’s immune system, McDermott said.

Smelling the attractiveness of a person based on political ideology may be an adaptation of this system through which people can find mates who have similar interests, she added.

Both genetic and social factors contribute to this olfactory preference, McDermott said. One reason that assortative mating by political ideology may be evolutionarily advantageous is that raising children in a coherent household can benefit the child’s wellbeing, she added. With fewer arguments and increased cooperation due to similar political beliefs, “you can recruit a lot more social capital to help you take care of your children, to get you better jobs, to provide more intellectual and social resources,” she said.

The article demonstrates a “novel” finding about “how subtle olfactory perceptions affect our social interactions,” wrote Rachel Herz, adjunct assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior, in an email to The Herald.

Herz wrote that she would have examined other factors if she had conducted the study. First, she would have compared political ideology with other social dimensions, such as religion, to see if there was a similar effect in these people. Second, she would have also examined the role of the participants’ diet alongside political beliefs, since eating behavior can change body odor. Finally, Herz wrote that she would have looked at the difference between women who were using hormonal contraception and those who were not because it could impact mate choice.

The study also points to the factors of mating behavior that are out of humans’ conscious control, McDermott said. Many people want to believe that humans are intellectually sophisticated in their mate selection, but that is not always the reality, she added.

“I think people don’t like to be reminded that we’re animals. They want to believe that love is rational or has a rational component,” she said.


-With additional reporting by Isobel Heck


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