A Nose for Moral Behavior: How smell can directly affect thoughts and behaviors

Will a plate of hot steaming cinnamon buns promote greater cooperation? How about the smell of coffee increasing moral behaviors? Can the odor of citrus Windex actually increase connectedness between strangers? Surprisingly the answer to all of these questions is yes! New research is now defining and proving that smell, the forgotten and least understood human sense, directly influences our perceptions, thoughts, and subsequent behaviors towards others.

One of the pioneers delving into the undiscovered country of smell is Avery Gilbert, a psychologist and scent expert/researcher who authored “What the Nose Knows: The Science of Smell in Everyday Life”. Avery has focused his career on clarifying the influence of smell on human behavior, decision making, and to clear up what he refers to as the “raging reptilian brain” misinterpretation and misunderstanding. Smell is not just a primal emotional influencer; according to Gilbert that is a misnomer. Smell is analyzed in the same manner as other sensory input, which directly influences our moral and social behaviors. This goes without saying that smell has influence on how judges, juries, and mediators perceive us, our clients and arguments.

How it All Works:

The Olfactory System is the oldest sensory system in mammals and can process about 10,000 different odors. When we smell, the scent enters the nose and is chemically translated by the olfactory bulbs and is then processed by the temporal lobe. As indicated in our articles on PTSD, the temporal lobe forms a portion of the limbic system. Briefly, the limbic system is responsible, in part, for autonomic systems, emotional responses, and sexual behavior. The olfactory system also sends information to the cerebral cortex. The cerebral cortex plays a role in more complex functions like language, abstract though, judgment, emotion, attention and creativity. Smells hold messages that we incorporate and process alongside other sensory input to generate mental models, form attitudes, make decisions, and influence behavioral responses.

Sensory input from odors that enter the limbic system influence unmitigated emotional responses. These untendered responses are then processed through the prefrontal cortex or the reasoning center of the brain. The role and effects of the prefrontal cortex on thoughts and behaviors are dependent upon personality characteristics and levels of self-awareness. There are individuals who receive messages from the limbic system and just react emotionally without thought, while others process, evaluate, accept or reject the limbic system messages. This is very important when looking at reptile strategies for your trial. The reasoning center of the brain should never be excluded or discounted when creating a persuasive argument or strategy.  

The Research:

A multitude of studies validate the reliability and applicability of this research. Smells like, coffee, cinnamon and perfume have a direct casual relation on moral behaviors. For example, research conducted in America and France used scents like coffee, cinnamon, and perfume to influence behaviors. The study was basic. The researchers chose either a store front on a street or in a mall. The area was misted with one of the aforementioned odors. As individuals walked past the misted store front a hired actor would drop something from a bag or purse. When the area was scented with one of the three scents strangers were more likely to pick up and return the object than when the area was not scented.

Scent research also indicated a direct influence on improving ethical and giving behaviors. Katie Liljenquist, assistant professor of Organizational Leadership at BYU, University of Toronto’s Chen-BO Zhong, and Nothwestern University’s Sdam Galinsky conducted the following research. When environments were sprayed with citrus scented Windex individuals associated the citrus scent with cleanliness and reported a desire to connect with those who were related with the citrus smell. The respondents in that study indicated that they were more willing to give money to charity and more willing to feel good about sharing money with others. This particular study was published in 2009 in Psychological Science. As cited earlier, smells hold messages that we incorporate and process alongside other sensory input to create mental models, make decisions, and create behavioral responses.

According to urban legend, people believe that the influence of smell is associated with emotions. The trick of freshly baked cookies during a home sale opening is an example. The going belief is that the smell triggers positive emotions about ‘home’ and increases purchase desires. The research, though, clearly indicates that smells influence thoughts more than emotions. Smells cause individuals to think about how they will act socially and morally.  Smell research in the marketing arena indicated that smell influenced choice, product comparison, and how brands were evaluated. Cognition, i.e. evaluations through the prefrontal cortex, was at the heart of those subsequent behaviors, not the limbic system.

Scenting an area does not mean we just snap into a certain type of behavior, that would indicate a greater limbic system influence. Eric Spangenberg of the University of Washington advises that scent marketing research appears to indicate a high level of manipulation when, in fact, the research indicated that the effects were more tributary. Odors certainly influence thoughts and subsequent behaviors within immediate contexts and do not have subliminal or lasting effects. In other words, the influence of scent on thoughts and behaviors are contextual; the effects are immediate and dissipate once the environment has changed. Scent is only part of a larger body of influencers on our thoughts and behaviors; the human brain evaluates all sensory input as a whole.

The findings from smell and olfactory research indicated that when certain techniques were employed individuals were more likely to respond within predictable deportments. Psychology is a complicated process and there are no simple answers. When employing psychological techniques to settlement, mediation, trial, judge and/or jury a trained psychological expert with an advanced degree in psychology is essential. As we all know, human behavior is unpredictable and that is just a psychological fact.

In Conclusion

One of the most overlooked sensory influencer when strategizing persuasive arguments is smell.  Understanding the important influence odors have on thoughts and behaviors can give you the cutting edge and enhance persuasion. Odors connect the presenter to the audience, influence the development of mental models, and positively affect moral and social behaviors. The salient advice we can give you is that if you see opposing counsel showing with a pine scented neck tie or earrings then you know they have read this article and what they are up to!

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