Invisible Influence: The Role Of Human Social Olfactory Cues In Ecologically Relevant Interactions

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A growing body of research indicates that body odor is important in human social communication, signaling information as varied as mate fitness, emotional state, and health status. Though research shows that body odor production is not limited to the axilla (armpits), most studies employ axillary sweat collected on t-shirts or pads, removing these samples from the olfactory context of whole body odor, as well as eschewing the evaluation of these odors from a realistic social distance. Current research employs odor samples donated by participants asked to avoid perfumes and deodorants, change their diets, and avoid such daily habits as drinking alcohol and sleeping with partners. In day-to-day life, however, people do engage in these activities. I label body odor that includes these daily modifications diplomatic odor, whereas I refer to body odor devoid of all exogenous odor influences as natural odor. Finally, while there has been great interest in the use of olfactory information for mate selection, there has been little investigation into its potential uses in first impressions and platonic friendship, and for this reason I focus solely on intrasexual female interactions. In this dissertation, I demonstrate that 1) people perceive consistent olfactory signals at social distances in realistic interactions, and that these signals convey different information depending on whether the donors present their diplomatic or natural body odor; 2) that body odors collected on t-shirts convey some - but not all - of the same information gleaned in an interaction with a live odor donor; 3) that perfume does not affect discrimination between individual body odors, 4) that learned responses to body odors can affect visual perception of social signals, and 5) that, although participants display social preferences based on olfactory information collected on t-shirts, they do not rely on these cues for informing first impressions in brief, multimodal encounters. As a whole, this dissertation demonstrates the social relevance of diplomatic olfactory cues in naturalistic interactions, and suggests that future work consider both natural and diplomatic odor influences, presented in realistic social contexts, in order to gain insight into the functional role of body odor in real life.

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Psychology; Body Odor; First Impressions; Friendship; Human Olfaction; Interpersonal Judgments; Perfumes


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Cleland, Thomas A.

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Swallow, Khena M.
Lundstrom, Johan N.
Cutting, James Eric
Zayas, Vivian

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Ph. D., Psychology

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Doctor of Philosophy

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Government Document




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Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International


dissertation or thesis

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