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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 26-May-13


Sunday 26-May-13

The smell of anxiety

Have you ever picked up on how other people feel? Empathy is an important human skill that enables us to connect with others and consequently respond to their emotions in appropriate ways. When another person is upset, for example, we will ask them how they are and maybe try to help them feel better.

But how does empathy work? How do we read how others are feeling?

A simple way we read the emotions of others is through interpreting their body language, either consciously or unconsciously. Likewise, we pick up on voice tone and any emotionally significant word patterns. Another factor that may not be obvious is smell. The sense of smell is a primitive system that many animals use to good effect in assessing the world around them, including other animals. We don't go sniffing other people's bodies, but subtle olfactory influences do exist.

An interesting bit of research by Katrin Haegler and colleagues shows that smell can even cause us to behave differently without any intermediate conscious thinking. They collected sweat from both anxious gamblers and non-anxious bike riders, and then exposed subjects to these while asking them to make risky bets. Rather curiously, those who were exposed to the 'anxious sweat' took longer to decide and then made riskier bets.

This seems a curious reaction and even the researchers did not know how to explain it. Perhaps a group of people being threatened by a predator would be emboldened when some of their number became afraid, thereby increasing the chance of somebody stepping up and fighting the attacker.

What does it mean for us? Will casino owners employ scared people to wander around, encouraging others to gamble more? Perhaps more realisitically, when working around anxious people, we should watch how both we and others approach risks. Whenever research shows something, a really good response is to try to observe it, to see if you can tell the difference. Then, if you can detect a difference (and beware of your internal biases making you think you can tell), then look for ways to make use of this knowledge.

Haegler K, Zernecke R, Kleemann AM, Albrecht J, Pollatos O, Br?kmann H, and Wiesmann M (2010). No fear no risk! Human risk behavior is affected by chemosensory anxiety signals. Neuropsychologia, 48 (13), 3901-8

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