A new study has debunked a long-standing assumption that culture has something to do with one’s odor preferences.
The study, titled “The perception of odor pleasantness is shared across cultures,” concluded that across cultures, people have similar odor preferences on average.
Led by University of Oxford cognitive scientist Asifa Majid, the research team noted that individual preference influences how pleasant we find a scent to be. This mostly depends on one’s personal response to the odor molecules’ chemical composition and is not based on cultural background.
Majid’s investigation of the relationship between culture and odor preferences dates back to 2018 when she and her team began comparing the smell vocabularies among different cultures.
In an earlier report, the team noted that while Malaysia’s Jahai hunter-gatherers and Dutch volunteers used different words to describe identical, unpleasant odors, “They made the same faces of disgust.”
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The research team then recruited 225 participants from nine cultures for their new study to determine if the levels of disgust would be the same across the diverse subjects. The participants, who were chosen from groups who had little contact with commercial Western foods and fragrances, included hunter-gatherers from Malaysia and northern Mexico, Ecuadoran farmers and Thai urban dwellers.
The participants were asked to smell 10 substances. The odorants were presented in random order, with each participant tasked with placing them in order from the most pleasant to least. The research team then compared their results with a similar test of New York residents done back in 2016.
On average, most individuals ranked the vanilla scent as the most pleasant, followed by the fruity smell of ethyl butyrate (found in ripe bananas and nectarines) and then linalool (floral scent). Most participants ranked diethyl disulfide (found in garlic and durian) and isovaleric acid (the rancid smell from cheeses and sweaty feet) as most unpleasant.
While a few participants from different cultures ranked isovaleric acid as their top choice, the difference was mostly attributed to personal preference.
Analyzing the drivers of the variations in responses, the researchers found that 54% of the difference could be attributed to personal choice, and only 6% was due to culture.
“Overall, what’s relatively good and relatively bad is shared across people,” said Majid, noting that individual preferences may be attributed to chemistry. People react the same way to an odorant depending on its distinct molecular structure.