Single people use a number of methods to find potential dates, such as going to bars, being fixed up by friends, online dating, or attending speed-dating events. How about choosing your next date based only on the smell of their stinky t-shirt? Sounds crazy, but an artist in Georgia has been throwing parties for singles where they do just that.1 Attendees bring a t-shirt they have worn to bed for the past three nights (without wearing any deodorant or perfume) to the party in a plastic bag. They then smell each other’s t-shirts and can introduce themselves to the people whose t-shirts they found most appealing. At one party, out of 40 attendees, a dozen people reportedly “hooked up”, and about half of them started relationships, which means roughly a third of the attendees found a match based on the smell of a t-shirt. Could smelling t-shirts be the best way to find that special someone? If so, what are people finding attractive about each other’s scents, and what does this mean for their later relationship success?
The way we smell depends on the food we eat (yes, garlic makes you stinky!) but also our biology, genes, and hormones. Evolutionary theory suggests that we choose potential mates based on how suitable they would be as genetic contributors to our offspring. Therefore, we look for (or smell for) signs that a person has good genes, good health, and fertility. In a previous post, we discussed how women preferred the scent of symmetrical men, but only when they were most fertile (i.e. near ovulation). The same was not found for men; men did not prefer the scent of more symmetrical women. So what do men prefer?
Even if men could smell out a woman with good genes, they would not be able to reproduce with her unless she was fertile. Therefore, it’s advantageous for men to identify female fertility through smell because women can only conceive in (roughly) the three days leading up to, and including, the day of ovulation. In a series of creative studies,2,3 men smelled the t-shirts worn by naturally ovulating women (not on hormonal birth control, having regular menstrual periods) during either in the high-fertility part of their cycle (near ovulation) or low-fertility (near menstruation). Men thought the shirts worn by high-fertility women smelled more pleasant and sexy (and less intense!) than those worn by low-fertility women. Another recent study replicated these findings and also showed that men can tell the difference between the scents of the same woman at high- and low-fertility. In fact, the greater the difference perceived between the two scents, the more men preferred the high-fertility scent.4 This preference was strongest for the women whose high-fertility scents were collected the closest to ovulation, showing that men can seemingly pick out the women who would be most likely to become pregnant if they were to mate with her.
It is important to note that none of the studies could identify a specific smell of symmetry or high-fertility. So there’s no reason to rush to the perfume counter before heading to a t-shirt smelling party. Your biology has already done much of the work for you.
2Singh, D., & Bronstad, P. M. (2001). Female body odour is a potential cue to ovulation. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 268, 797–801.
3Thornhill, R., Gangestad, S. W., Miller, R., Scheyd, G., McCollough, J. K., & Franklin, M. (2003). Major histocompatibility complex genes, symmetry, and body scent attractiveness in men and women. Behavioral Ecology, 14, 668–678.
4Gildersleeve, K. A., Haselton, M. G., Larson, C. M., & Pillsworth, E. G. (2012). Body odor attractiveness as a cue of impending ovulation in women: Evidence from a study using hormone-confirmed ovulation. Hormones and Behavior, 61, 157-166.
Dr. Yanna Weisberg - Science of Relationships articles
Yanna’s research focuses on how personality affects perceptions of and behaviors in relationships, and how these relationship qualities affect personality change. Additional interests include evolutionary theory, affiliation, trust, and happiness.
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