Love at first smell, and what stinky t-shirts tell us about attraction
January 31, 2008 6:08 AM   Subscribe

"There's no Brad Pitt of smell," Herz says. "Body odor is an external manifestation of the immune system, and the smells we think are attractive come from the people who are most genetically compatible with us."

"Not only does kissing serve the utilitarian purpose of providing a sample of MHC, but it also magnifies the other attraction signals--if only as a result of proximity." — Time Magazine

But sometimes the tastes and scents can trick us, or other factors, such as the "divorce pill" make us think something is right for us when it may not be so. These insights found in a pile of stinky t-shirts.

Cover stories this month in both Psychology Today and Time magazine reveal why we kiss, why we flirt, why women's menstrual cycles sync, and many other keys to attraction. It's all so...romantic.
posted by iamkimiam (40 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

Psychology Today makes me want to trade my degrees in.
posted by srboisvert at 6:23 AM on January 31, 2008 [2 favorites]

There's no Brad Pitt of smell

Next they'll be telling us there's no Brad Pitt of looks.
posted by Mocata at 6:25 AM on January 31, 2008

For the record, it's a much better idea to compliment a guy with 'you smell nice' than 'we have compatible genetic code'. Just sayin' from experience.

I'd read about this before, but hadn't heard anything about the 'divorce' pill bit. It's a disparagingly sparse article. Supposedly other forms of birth control would have the same effect, yes?
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 6:25 AM on January 31, 2008

Except we don't kiss someone we just met to find out if we like them. We kiss someone we already like.

Anyone with a baby can tell you that kissing is surely related at least partly to a feeding reflex. If you open your mouth to a baby, they'll put their lips right in there to try to get any food you've pre-chewed for them (which you would likely have only done if you are a caveperson without access to a blender). Kissing seems like a modified form of this, similar to how we protect and address our loved ones as if they were babies.
posted by DU at 6:26 AM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

There is however a Brian Blessed smell. It's like a mixture of bacon and brimstone.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 6:42 AM on January 31, 2008 [4 favorites]

Related discussion in this thread on AskMe.
posted by TedW at 6:43 AM on January 31, 2008

Something tells me Brad Pitt is the Brad Pitt of smell. Even straight guys would totally sniff his pillowcase if no one was around.
posted by hermitosis at 6:44 AM on January 31, 2008 [2 favorites]

totally sniff his pillowcase

I will now interject variations of this phrase into my daily conversation as much as possible:

"And if you have a problem with that, well, you can just sniff my pillowcase, buddy."

"I'd crawl a mile through broken glass just to sniff her pillowcase."

"What kind of pillowcase-sniffing wafflestomper do you think I am, anyhow?"

"Now, now, who among us hasn't sniffed a pillowcase or two [wink, nudge], amirite?"
posted by FelliniBlank at 6:54 AM on January 31, 2008 [10 favorites]

For the record, it's a much better idea to compliment a guy with 'you smell nice' than 'we have compatible genetic code'.

1) Woman: "Hello there honey. You sure smell nice."
Man: "Thank you."

2) Woman: "Hey there. I was looking at you and I'm pretty sure we have compatible genetic code"
Man: "Oh my god I love you."
posted by cashman at 6:55 AM on January 31, 2008 [7 favorites]

Woman: "Hey there. I was looking at you and I'm pretty sure we have compatible genetic code"
Man: Let's try a field test.
posted by DU at 7:01 AM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

That's weird... I seem to remember reading this very article in Psychology Today (there was nothing else to read ... what?) several years ago. In fact, I haven't touched a copy of that magazine for years, but I distinctly remember the "Brad Pitt" comment.

Study of human pheremones and mate choice from 2001

Huh. We still have vomeronasal organs. That's why I'm making this face.
posted by louche mustachio at 7:01 AM on January 31, 2008

I should add I just happened to be sniffing Brad Pitt's pillowcase.

It smells like hot dogs. Who knew?
posted by louche mustachio at 7:03 AM on January 31, 2008

The "stinky t-shirt phenomenon" is at least as old as the late 90s, when a related article was posted on the wall in a college lab I worked at that (we studied why the MHC was so genetically diverse). Of course, I didn't get to sniff potentially cute guys' t-shirts, but instead had a similarly glamorous job of collecting mice pee by massaging their bladders and running PCR results on gels.

Except we don't kiss someone we just met to find out if we like them. We kiss someone we already like.

A behavioral ecologist would argue that you're not kissing them to see if you like them, but whether you should mate with them. Whether or not most modern humans have relationships to mate is besides the point. Extended courtships arguably are a modern trend, evolutionarily speaking.

Miller argues that modern hygiene may be such an impediment to sexual signaling that it could explain why so many people in our culture get so physical so fast.

Whether or not this is actually true, it provides some interesting fodder for consideration (as did a lot of other points in these articles, including the recommendation to get off the pill before getting married). It seems that most people, including myself, disdain the idea that our thoughts and behavior are controlled to a great extent by instincts that reside wholly on a molecular and cellular level.
posted by artifarce at 7:07 AM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I have that older issue of Psych Today and recalled reading about the stinky t-shirts years ago. I also find it interesting that Time and Psych Today both ran cover stories on this topic in the same week...covering all the same points basically. Wonder what that was about, if anything?

srboisvert...I think I understand what you mean about Psych Today, but for us laymen who don't have degrees or even much interest in psychology, it draws us in in ways that make it fun, interesting, and palatable. As long as the content is factual and doesn't attempt to trivialize or gloss over important points and implications, I don't see anything wrong with the silly pop-style way it's presented. It's like Highlights for adults.

I'm curious to hear more on your (or others') take.
posted by iamkimiam at 7:12 AM on January 31, 2008

Looking for more up-to-date articles than the 1995 one (which I suppose is why so many of us recognized this as being published before) I found this article documenting how MHC-similar individuals rated each other's faces. Guess I should go post this in that AskMe article.
posted by artifarce at 7:17 AM on January 31, 2008

I should add I just happened to be sniffing Brad Pitt's pillowcase. ...It smells like hot dogs. Who knew?

In 1998, 1999-ish, when Jennifer Aniston was in Austin for the filming of Office Space, Brad Pitt had just begun courting her. The papers had only just begun calling them "an item," it was so early. So she's filming, and he's hanging around town doing what celebrities with downtime in Austin do: going to clubs, eating Mexican food, shopping on South Congress, etc.

And Austin is a fairly small town in that capacity -- if there are Big Names in town, there are only a few places that they are going to be seen, and those places are all public venues, there aren't the private members-only clubs, and so on. So, if you already run with the local celebs, you're likely to run into the big-time celebs too.

And a pal of mine was dating (at the time) a record producer from Sony, who flew in every weekend from LA to see her. So she's going with him to all the hot spots where the posh people are hanging out.

And she swears emphatically, to this very day, that Brad Pitt is hygienically challenged. She interacted with him three or four times at clubs and parties, and she says that every single time, he had wicked B.O. Which isn't unheard of in hippiefied Austin... but apparently "he didn't even try to hide it with patchouli!"

And we did what anyone does when you have a pal who's got celebrity gossip: we made it canon among us. (This same girl lived on the same street as the house where Matt McConaughey got busted with the weed and the bongos, so she was full of stories in those days)

So to me, there is this great irony that someone would say, "There is no 'Brad Pitt' of smell," as though Brad Pitt should be some sort of metaphor for all that is aromatically inviting and attractive. When I know (secondhand, of course, but that beats "My best friend's sister's boyfriend's brother's girlfriend heard from this guy who knows this kid who's going with a girl who saw Ferris pass out at 31 Flavors last night."), that he actually prefers the overripe, funky bouquet of unwashedness.
posted by pineapple at 7:48 AM on January 31, 2008 [3 favorites]

It sure makes breaking up that much easier: "it's not that you have such rampant halitosis it smells as if you've been necking turds, my dear, I just think our genes may be incompatible."

Anyway, how many of these so called scientific pheromone studies have taken place in dark, overcrowded nightclubs that smell of spilt beer and stale cigarette smoke when the participants have had a bad week and one too many drinks?

The divorce pill ain't got nothing on beer goggles. I think we as taxpayers should demand that this research takes place under real world conditions.

I don't think I'd much care to smell Brad Pitt's pillowcase, just as a matter of record.
posted by MuffinMan at 7:54 AM on January 31, 2008

Did you read the part about the strippers MuffinMan?

"It's not just women who respond to such olfactory cues. One surprising study published last October in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior showed that strippers who are ovulating average $70 in tips per hour; those who are menstruating make $35; those who are not ovulating or menstruating make $50. Other studies suggest that men can react in more romantic ways to olfactory signals. In work conducted by Martie Haselton, an associate professor of psychology at UCLA, women report that when they're ovulating, their partners are more loving and attentive and, significantly, more jealous of other men."


"Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico and author of The Mating Mind, noticed the pill's connection to waning male desire while studying a group of exotic dancers—women whose livelihoods depend on how sexually appealing they are to male customers. Non-pill-using dancers made about 50 percent more in tips than dancers on oral contraceptives. In other words, women who were on the pill were only about two-thirds as sexy as women who weren't.

Why were the pill-takers in the study so much less attractive to men? "Women are probably doing something unconsciously, and men are responding to it unconsciously," says Miller. "We just don't know whether it has to do with a shift in their psychology, their tone of voice, or if it's more physical, as in the kind of pheromones they're putting out."

The biggest earners in Miller's study were non-pill-using dancers at the time of ovulation."

posted by iamkimiam at 8:10 AM on January 31, 2008

And because people's MHC profiles are as distinct as fingerprints—there are thousands of possible gene combinations—a potential sex partner who smells good to one woman may completely repel another. "There's no Brad Pitt of smell," Herz says.

This is wrong for several reasons. First of all, There's no Brad Pitt of looks: a potential sex partner who looks good to one woman may completely repel another. Not all women are attracted to Brad Pitt.

Second, while not all women are attracted to the same looks, women will choose some looks over others at a higher level than chance. While not all women are more attracted to the looks of Brad Pitt than the looks of, say, Ron Jeremy, we can presume, with a high degree of certainty, that the majority of them are.

And in that sense, contrary to the article, we know that MHC influenced smells are similar to looks. Men with some MHC profiles are desirable to a greater fraction of women.

Last, the Brad Pitts of looks are also the Brad Pitts of smell: Men with certain MHC profiles are rated as more facially attractive (above link), and when women are asked to rate the appeal of male body odors on different T-shirts, they prefer the smells from men who were independently rated as more facially attractive.
posted by dgaicun at 8:37 AM on January 31, 2008

I'm sorry, but the smells I think are attractive are not even compatible with me at the "number of chromosomes" level. I know, I'm broken.
posted by Wolfdog at 8:54 AM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

One day on a long drive my boyfriend started explaining the concept of the MHC to me. I was fascinated, and we had a long conversation about it and how it works and why it's useful.

Then he concluded, with a worried look, "So... since you just went off the Pill... do we still smell compatible?"
posted by moonlet at 8:57 AM on January 31, 2008 [2 favorites]

From the Washington Post's review of The Rose of Martinique...

Napoleon Bonaparte possessed an acute sense of smell. A few years ago I saw an advertisement for Camembert cheese that purported to relate an incident in the life of the famous general: An aide-de-camp, afraid of drawing Napoleon's ire for awakening him after a fatiguing battle, devised a plan. He cut a ripened piece of one of the general's favorite cheeses and held it close to his nose. After some grunting and moaning, the general murmured, "Ahh, Josephine!"

In The Rose of Martinique, Andrea Stuart does not confirm the veracity of the advertisement but provides other details. Napoleon, in one of his more infamous letters to Josephine, begged her not to bathe, for he wanted to enjoy her body odor to the fullest
posted by jasper411 at 9:36 AM on January 31, 2008

iamkimiam, I did read the bit about strippers.

Not only that, but when the Economist reported the story a few months back I sent a one line email with the link to a particularly filthy colleague with (luckily) a quite tame comment like "have you found this too, Jim?"

Little did I know that the bright sparks in our company IT department had secretly reconfigured the email system following our acquisition by a large media company so that the corporate address book now included every member of the group and not just our little company. So, two guys called Jim with the same family name.

Somewhere out in the ether a tame accountant called Jim is reading a story about the relationship between tipping and contraceptive use among strippers and wondering why a stranger thinks this is a must read for him.
posted by MuffinMan at 9:37 AM on January 31, 2008

As someone who once volunteered to house-sit for an ex just to sniff the pillows (hey, I missed him, you smartasses, I wasn't trying to figure out if he'd been having ovulating strippers over or anything), I think this isn't too far off base.

Also, another one of my exes smells like vanilla to me. Really, really strong vanilla. It was kind of cool.
posted by at 9:39 AM on January 31, 2008

This is probably a contributing factor to why my first marriage ended. She'd spent a lot of time on the pill, and then a lot of time raising kids/trying to get pregnant and during this time we were quite compatible. After she had ablation surgery to correct severe menstrual bleeding and was no longer capable of pregnancy, she went off the pill and things went downhill over the next few years, with each of us liking each other's smell less and less. It ended peacefully.

My current wife smells delicious, and she (no pill) feels the same about me.
posted by seanmpuckett at 9:40 AM on January 31, 2008

And she swears emphatically, to this very day, that Brad Pitt is hygienically challenged.

Maybe her MHC was just too similar to that of Brad Pitt.
posted by Doohickie at 10:01 AM on January 31, 2008

I smell like a Frenchman at 3 pm in July, and my wife loves me anyway.
posted by Mister_A at 10:01 AM on January 31, 2008

Whether or not this is actually true, it provides some interesting fodder for consideration (as did a lot of other points in these articles, including the recommendation to get off the pill before getting married). It seems that most people, including myself, disdain the idea that our thoughts and behavior are controlled to a great extent by instincts that reside wholly on a molecular and cellular level.

But in fact these studies don't show that. They show that we are instinctively driven towards certain characteristics (often non-obvious ones), or are driven to behave in specific manners suited to survival. But you have the option to consider the situation and choose how to act or think (which the ability to do so could reside wholly on a molecular and cellular level too, but the studies certainly aren't saying this). For instance,
"...women report that when they're ovulating, their partners are more loving and attentive and, significantly, more jealous of other men."
is easily rectifiable. Simply discipline oneself to be considerate, loving, and attentive as you believe you should whenever you can. As to the second part, if you start feeling jealous, analyze the situation and determine if the jealousy is warranted. If not, stop being jealous. Loosely put, control your responses to emotions.
posted by kigpig at 10:29 AM on January 31, 2008

I can always say I was somewhat freaked out when my first girlfriend liked to burrow into my shoulder / armpit even though I had not showered that day. And I was a smoker, and she hated smoking.

She said I smelled really nice. And in short, because I smelled somewhat like but not identical to her father (quoting the smelly tshirt research).

She was also on the pill at the time. So atleast now I don't feel bad, knowing that we would have broken up anyway once she went off the pill (yay science!).
posted by mrzarquon at 11:04 AM on January 31, 2008

kigpig, I wholeheartedly agree with you that genes aren't completely deterministic. Perhaps I should've said "influenced" or "moderated" instead of "controlled." If you want to read an interesting book about this, try Nature vs. Nurture by Matt Ridley.

And your point doesn't apply to half the things our genes influence, even if the majority of people had the self-control that you describe. I can wish you luck monitoring your emotions, but to return to the more fundamental point of the OP, can you control who you're attracted to? The amusing part is that some might object to saying attraction (or any other human interaction or attribute) has a genetic component, but it's no less deterministic than not being able to explain the reason you've always found auburn hair sexy. Nor can I explain why I was initially drawn to my spouse, even though I can pinpoint the exact moment I noticed him and verbalize reasons for continuing on that attraction.

My point fundamentally is this (and kigpig, this isn't directed at you), that the human body is more complex in ways we don't yet understand, much less even know to imagine. The complex interplay of biological pathways, environmental, biological, and chemical stimuli, and even other organisms
make offhand dismissal of such influences as the MHC shortsighted. Free will of humans is only on the crust--we only see the final conclusion as expressed by our thoughts and actions, but don't you want to know what lies beneath?
posted by artifarce at 12:04 PM on January 31, 2008

And she swears emphatically, to this very day, that Brad Pitt is hygienically challenged.

I actually have gotten this same information from (likely) a different source.
posted by davejay at 1:10 PM on January 31, 2008

Psych today pretty consistently just makes me want to stab things. I'm most impressed with the "hygiene made society slutty" argument.
posted by Arturus at 1:44 PM on January 31, 2008

artifarce, I avoided the attraction component because I was looking to comment on the idea that it's disdainful how our impulses are guided by genes rather than enlightening, so that we can learn to make healthy decisions. But I'm betting from your post you're in full agreement with that. Having been piled on a few times here and all the time in RL for commenting on the topic of attractions I didn't want it to blanket the other remark.

In fact, I fully agree with you in that I don't think we control at all who we are attracted to and I think this goes both for romantic and even friendly interactions since after all we tend to be less kind to those we find unattractive, if not downright hostile. In accepting this I think we should personally take an active stance to try and override, or more accurately, disregard what is attractive or not since it has nothing to do with who the person is and everything to do with how our genes have programmed us to find a mate. If looking for a mate for offspring this would probably be a bad strategy, but a lot of us aren't and can't really excuse hanging onto that bigoted baggage otherwise.

Take for instance a poster's comment above:
"While not all women are more attracted to the looks of Brad Pitt than the looks of, say, Ron Jeremy, we can presume, with a high degree of certainty, that the majority of them are."
Well, I'm sure Ron Jeremy gets on well and all, but there are a lot of Ron Jeremys in the above context out there that aren't famous porn stars and spend quite a bit of life if not the totality of it miserable because they aren't attractive to most people and therefore people don't want them as lovers, people don't need them as friends, people don't look up to them, people don't respect them. And to think for some of them, people just putting a clothespin over their noses would be enough to make them otherwise attractive.

Also there's the problem of unwanted response too. The flirtation article comments on the cant gesture:
"Eibl Eibesfeldt, then of the Max Planck Institute in Germany, filmed African tribes in the 1960s and found that the women there did the exact same prolonged stare followed by a head tilt away with a little smile that he saw in America."
So a random male seeing such a gesture, will respond as if they were being flirted with and pursue or not depending on interest without any thought going into it. Unfortunately it may not have been at him, it may have been coincidental movement misread, or it may be a subconscious response not meant to be actualized that leads to the man committing sexual harassment at the workplace. It further goes on to hint at something of an industry arising that teaches people how to exploit these mannerisms. Which in essence is rape, though many would be more likely to refer to it as 'romantic'.

Note: the above has nothing to do with your post outside of post-commentary to the question posed.
posted by kigpig at 1:44 PM on January 31, 2008

I love hating Psychology Today.
posted by From Bklyn at 2:03 PM on January 31, 2008

kigpig, I understand now. I'm rather used to people around me reacting to the common simplification of "your genes MAKE you do this..." and reacting with either bemused skepticism or suspicion. You make some good points.
posted by artifarce at 2:12 PM on January 31, 2008

Getting a kick out of this, just last week I was telling people about how I pick girlfriends by smell. And I can tell who's behind me by smell, even who's been around in the last 30 minutes or so just by smell. I smell living people, it's even better than sight. And yes I drive/walk around the neighborhood with my nose out like a dog. Weird.
posted by zengargoyle at 3:00 PM on January 31, 2008

He says the pill makes women feel pregnant, so they feel like they need to be protected.

Except that the pill does not, in fact, make you feel pregnant, at least not physiologically. The pill makes your body think you have already ovulated, so you don't ovulate and therefore cannot conceive. The pill does NOT trick your body into thinking you are already pregnant.

I suppose some women could subjectively "feel pregnant" while on the pill, but there's no chemical basis for it.
posted by Violet Hour at 10:17 PM on January 31, 2008

btw, I really wish I had put the Time article above the fold; it was much better, but I cracked up at the Brad Pitt quote so I put it up front. (that, and I'm still figuring out what goes where on an FPP)

Without starting a big debate, would somebody mind explaining to me the dislike of Psychology Today? I read it regularly, but don't have a critical eye for this stuff. I would love to be a more informed reader...especially if I understood how some publications lose credibility points for whatever reasons.
posted by iamkimiam at 10:27 AM on February 1, 2008

Psych B.A. here. I like Psychology Today just fine. I think a lot of people dislike it because it extracts the interesting "story" elements from their context within peer-reviewed studies, often extrapolating conclusions that the study's original authors may not have intended, or that can only thinly be reached given the available information. In doing so, however, the magazine is no worse than most consumer magazines out there—and I'd say it provides a lot more background and information than the "science" blurbs in consumer magazines like U.S. News and such do.

Lots of scientists like to pooh-pooh the above-mentioned consumer magazines for their supposedly incomplete and inaccurate and sensationalized coverage—but y'know, if I were a scientist, I'd be happy to have the coverage. More articles and coverage out there, as long as said coverage contained no glaring, negative misrepresentations of my work, would just be pudding to me. (Unless my esteemed and oh-so-serious colleagues decided I was just some "media dandy" and chose not to award me tenure or other promotion for otherwise valid work. Then I'd be pissed.)

But then again, that's the perspective of someone who studied psychology in college but went on to do magazine editing. I think the little kernel of the story that can be extrapolated from the research is the exciting part.
posted by limeonaire at 2:21 PM on February 3, 2008

My dislike of Psychology Today stems from a broader dislike of evolutionary psychology, which Psych Today likes to spew out all over the place. My experience with evolutionary psychology comes largely from feminist critiques of it; it tends very strongly towards "women are like this, men are like this" sorts of things, which is characteristically strong in this article. It's likelimeonaire says with the extrapolated conclusions and all, but the point is that poorly supported conclusions are more pernicious when they're about fundamentals of human behavior and relations than when they're about some new gadget or bit of physics.

Wikipedia, I see, has a long article on various critiques of the field, the rather horribly named evolutionary psychology controversy. I'm not sure how good it is, because I don't have the time to go through it right now.
posted by Arturus at 10:37 AM on February 4, 2008

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