Smelly Self-Confidence

Today is Sci's entry for this month's CARNAL CARNIVAL. The month's topic, as you may have body odor.

Ah, the big B.O. One of the things that people are by the most sensitive about in countries like the US. In fact, people have been busily covering any sign of their natural scent (and blocking out the scents of others) with hefty doses of whatever sweet smelling item they could come across for several thousand years. We judge others based on their body odor and we also judge ourselves. But the question is, if we think that WE smell other people notice?

It might sound like a one hand clapping sort of question, but not at all. If whether you think you smell is linked to the way you portray yourself, it's possible that other people may notice, even if they can't smell you. This study was going to find out whether this is true. Roberts, et al. "Manipulation of body odour alters men’s self-confidence and judgements of their visual attractiveness by women" International Journal of Cosmetic Science, 2009.

So for this study, they looked both at the effects of deodorant (OMG I have the WORST time spelling that correctly) on your perceived sense of self-confidence, and also on how OTHER PEOPLE rated your attractiveness in video presentation. The idea here was to see whether the deodorant you put on affected your self-confidence, the way you presented yourself, and thus your attractiveness to other people.

So they took 34 dudes. On the first day, they tested their self-confidence and self-rated attractiveness scores. They then gave them either deodorant (D+) or an ethanol spray placebo (D-) and had them put it on. 15 minutes later they tested them again, asking for ratings of attractiveness and self-confidence. They then told the guys to wear the deodorant they were given (which had no labels or anything) for the next 48 hours. 48 hours later, the guys came in, got rated again on attractiveness and self-confidence, and THEN they had a photo taken, and recorded a video interview, in which they introduced themselves to an "attractive woman" (they were supposed to imagine themselves doing so, no record of whether there were actually attractive women present).

And then they took those photos and videos, and showed them to a group of WOMEN, and asked the women what they thought.

And here's what they got:


This first graph shows the ratings of self-confidence in the two groups getting either D+ or D-. You can see that they started out not difference (always a good thing). The error bars are large (which you get with a lot of human studies like this), but they say that the two groups ended up significantly difference, with the group getting placebo showing decreases in self-confidence.


This graph shows their self-ratings of attractiveness. This LOOKS like it should be more different than the graph above it, but in fact, the two groups DON'T DIFFER. This will make sense to you went you see how small the change in on the Y axis (3.4 vs 3.7). Still the stats came CLOSE...

Anyway, on to the videos!


This is where they gave photos and videos to a bunch of women and asked what they thought. You can see that the photos were judged as equally attractive no matter what kind of deodorant the guy was wearing. However, when they showed VIDEOS of these same guys, the man wearing the D- spray were perceived as less attractive than the men wearing the D+. The authors suggest that this is because the D- guys were portraying themselves LESS CONFIDENTLY than the guys who trusted their B.O.


And here's a slightly different way of getting at the question, they plotted the guys' ratings of the deodorant against how attractively they were rated by WOMEN in the videos. You can see that the guys with the D- spray didn't like their deodorant very much, while the guys with the D+ spray liked it better, and were rated as having higher attractiveness ratings.

Basically, it appears that if you have faith in your deodorant, you have more self-confidence, and portray yourself more attractively.


It's no secret that being self-confident increases your attractiveness to people. They even graphed some extra data to show you.


So the take home message: if deodorant increase your self-confidence, it'll probably cause you to portray yourself better and make you that much more attractive. And this study definitely shows that we take how we feel we smell VERY seriously when it comes to self-confidence.

This is a good study, and confirmed some interesting things about how we perceive our B.O. But there are a couple of things:

1) WEIRD bias: This is the relatively recent idea that most people used in psych studies like these, which are usually conducted at Western universities in developed nations, are WEIRD. I'm not talking odd, I'm talking White, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic, referring to the universities and societies they have come from and thus things that shape the way they react. These people have been raised to think BO is bad, what about people who don't care? Some societies don't use deoderant in their day to day lives, it'd be interesting to see if scent in general affects them.

2) I thought the placebo condition had a fragrance to it as well, but in the methods it actually says it was just an unscented ethanol spray. I think a third condition with just the fragrance, but without the anti microbial, would be a good one to have, how much does COVERING the smell affect people's self-confidence? I also think a fourth condition with just the antimicrobial (like with an unscented deodorant) might be a good one to try, see how much the smell is really having to do with this. Basically, I think it would be VERY interesting if there was a condition where they liked the smell and rated the deodorant just like another, but still had an effect on self-confidence and perceived attractiveness.

3) Did they shower in between? They wore the deodorant for 48 hours, some people shower every day...did they? And what about longer term effects? Maybe if they got used to wearing it their self-confidence would increase?

4) These effects are in men. What about effects on women? What about phase of the menstrual cycle?

But the takehome message is the same, though these studies would be interesting: if you want to have self-confidence, it helps to have confidence in how you smell. Whether that's eau de natural or not is up to you!

Craig Roberts S, Little AC, Lyndon A, Roberts J, Havlicek J, & Wright RL (2009). Manipulation of body odour alters men's self-confidence and judgements of their visual attractiveness by women. International journal of cosmetic science, 31 (1), 47-54 PMID: 19134127

3 responses so far

  • This makes me want to do laundry and cake on deodorant (which really is a wicked word to try to spell) and then put on perfume. I wonder if perfume also bolsters confidence?

  • rknop says:

    I left grad school to start my post-doc before I defended my thesis. So, when I went to defend my thesis, I travelled back and stayed with friends for a few days.

    I forgot to bring my deoderant with me. Now, yes, I know that a trip to the store can fix this problem, but, well, Mitchem always advertised "so effective you can even skip a day", so I figured I'd give it a go.

    In other words, I was a day or two (I forget exactly which) away from putting on deoderant when I defended my PhD thesis. I did fine. (I felt way more confident than I did during my orals; my orals just made me want to weep. And I put on deoderant that morning! I suspect it has something to do with my confidence in what I was talking about....)

    Obviously, my anecdote doesn't mean anything, except that I think of that when I read things like this.

  • Sandy says:

    This is a really intelligent way to answer the qeutsion.

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