If you find yourself in close contact with someone reeking of body odor—say, in a subway car, or supermarket checkout line—your initial response is probably to turn away. But that doesn’t mean your attitude toward the pungent-smelling person is harsh or disparaging.
To the contrary, malodorous strangers can elicit pity and inspire generosity—so long as we believe their unpleasant aroma is due to circumstances beyond their control.
That’s the conclusion of a research team from the University of Leuven in Belgium, led by psychologist Jeroen Camps. “Contrary to what one might intuitively expect,” the researchers write in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, “our findings revealed that people with bad body odors are not always treated in an unfavorable way.”
Camps and his colleagues describe three experiments backing up their thesis. In the first, 36 participants were asked to sniff either a neutral- or foul-smelling T-shirt, and imagine “it belonged to a person with whom they had to work.”
“The bad smell was obtained by soaking the T-shirt in a solution of human sweat, beer, hydrogen sulfide and fart spray,” they note.
"Contrary to what one might intuitively expect, our findings revealed that people with bad body odors are not always treated in an unfavorable way."
Afterward, the participants responded to a series of statements designed to reveal their attitudes toward the imaginary person in the shirt. The researchers found those who had smelled the stinky shirt expressed more pity for the wearer than those who had inspected the clean garment.
But do such feelings change anyone's behavior? That was the focus of the second experiment, which featured 62 undergraduates. Each was assigned to complete a maze while seated next to a fellow student. Half of those partners wore a clean shirt, while the others wore the foul-smelling one used in the first experiment.
Afterward, participants moved by themselves into another room and played an “ultimatum game,” in which they were asked to divide credits between themselves and their partner. “Each credit gave them a chance of winning a movie ticket, so credits were valuable,” the researchers note.
Perhaps surprisingly, they found “participants who worked with an unpleasant-smelling other donated more credits to this person than participants in the control condition,” To the researchers, this suggests “there are situations in which a person’s unpleasant body odor increases others’ helping behaviors toward this person.”
The third and final experiment, featuring 42 undergraduates, used a different odor, and raised the issue of personal responsibility. When each participant arrived at the test site, he or she was told they had to wait for a second person to arrive before the experiment could begin.
After 10 minutes, the research partner showed up. Half the time, he or she wore a neutral T-shirt; on the other occasions, “the T-shirt was drenched in a solution of alcohol and beer.”
Asked why he or she was tardy, the latecomer gave one of two responses: Either they had stopped by a bar because they wanted a drink, or they had been invited to a reception. Afterward, the experiment proceeded along the lines of the previous one, with the two sitting side by side completing a maze, and the participant then deciding how many credits to allocate to his or her partner.
Once again, “participants donated more credits to a person with bad-smelling body odor,” the researchers write. However, that dynamic was reversed among those who were told their bad-smelling partner voluntarily stopped off at a bar (as opposed to feeling compelled to attend the reception). Such people received fewer credits than their neutral-smelling counterparts.
“If the person was held responsible for his own body odor, people were less likely to help if (s)he smelled bad,” the researchers explain. “In a situation that discounted the person’s responsibility for his/her body odor, however, participants were more likely to help.”
The researchers concede that their experiments did not precisely duplicate real-life experiences. For one thing, “participants were not at risk of being exposed to this bad-smelling other for a second time.” It’s conceivable that regular, ongoing exposure to bad body odor could change that pity into annoyance.
Nevertheless, the results suggest that if someone smells bad, people often instinctively (in-stink-tively?) respond with kindness and concern. So if you just dropped a $20 bill into a homeless person’s hat and later wondered why—well, perhaps it’s been a long time since that panhandler had a bath.