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Judging a Book by its Smell

After having three dates with a gentleman recently, I decided to stop seeing him. At the risk of sounding shallow, I just didn’t like the way he tasted or smelled. Let me explain. Our first date was a quick cup of coffee one Saturday afternoon. The conversation was interesting. We had a number of things in common, he was attractive and funny, and there was enough of a spark to make me want to kiss him after the date. Sadly, the kiss left something to be desired. His mouth had a metallic taste to it, which I thought might have been due to the bitter coffee he had been nursing during our conversation. He wasn’t wearing braces or anything, so rather than assume that it was something about him (something us psychologists call an internal attribution1), I agreed to another date when he asked me out again.

Our second date entailed dinner and a few glasses of wine. He walked me to my car afterwards and kissed me. Same metallic flavor. Yuck. I moved in to give him a hug and smelled his neck. He had a slight sour smell to his skin—not bad or anything, but just not the more appealing, musky scent that I like. Maybe it was his cologne? A bad body soap? Should he have put on some Axe body spray before our date? Or was it something about me that led to an overly sensitive sense of smell? Interestingly, ovulating women tend to prefer more masculine, symmetrical faces,2 as well as certain body scents, as these are indicators of health and good immunological compatibility for possible offspring. There are even pheromone parties built off this idea to help people find mates that they like to smell. I thought I should try Mr. Metal Mouth out one more time to see if my low attraction to him was really just being influenced by my fertility cycle.

We scheduled a hike the following weekend during a time when my boys were visiting their father and I was out of my follicular phase. I figured that at least the sweat from strenuous exercise would help me be a better judge as to whether I would be physically attracted to him. But no. Bear in mind, in the past I have dated men who had not showered for days after camping; I found them irresistible, whereas I found Mr. Metallic quite resistible. I ended up telling him that I thought we would be better friends than romantic partners.

Why didn’t I like the way he tasted or smelled? Turns out there are scents that women pick up on in potential mates, regardless of their fertility cycle. High cortisol levels, which are measured in saliva, are related to body odors that women rate as most attractive,3 because hormones like cortisol are important for producing good sperm. Androstadienone, which is another pheromone found in sweat and hair, makes women more attuned to emotional information after they have been exposed4 to it, and they rate male faces as more attractive during live interactions after smelling this phermone.5 I have not been able to find any research related to taste, but taste is strongly associated with our ability to smell;6 so that might also explain why I didn’t like the way he tasted.

I have two kids. I don’t want any more. So, now that I am not as concerned about genetic compatibility in a mate, how can I switch off this automatic preference?  I have dated three guys so far since my re-entry onto the market (Mr. Ex-Scuba Diver, El Cheapo, and now this guy), and I am no closer to finding someone whom I want to spend more than a few dates with. Mr. Metallic was at least nice to hang out with, but given my lack of physical attraction and aversion to kissing him, it would never work. Birth control pills can interfere with our ability to detect some pheromones,2 but not others,3 so is my only resort to start taking hormonal contraception just so that I can be more attracted to nice guys like him?

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

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1Kelley, H. H. (1973). The process of causal attribution. American Psychologist, 28, 107-128.

2Thornhill, 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.

3Rantala, M. J., Eriksson, C. J. P., Vainikka, A., & Kortet, R. (2006). Male steroid hormones and female preference for male body odor. Evolution and Human Behavior, 27, 259-269.

4Hummer, T. A. & McClintock, M. K. (2009). Putative human pheromone androstadienone attunes the mind specifically to emotional information. Hormones & Behavior, 55, 548-559.

5Saxton, T. K., Lyndon, A., Little, A. C., & Roberts, S. C. (2008). Evidence that androstadienone, a putative human chemosignal, modulates women’s attributions of men’s attractiveness. Hormones & Behavior, 54, 597-601.

6American Academy of Otorlaryngology. (2012). Retrieved on April 16, 2012 from http://www.entnet.org/HealthInformation/smellTaste.cfm

Dr. Jennifer Harman - Adventures in Dating... | Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr.  Harman's research examines relationship behaviors that put people at-risk for physical and psychological health problems, such as how feelings and beliefs about risk (e.g., sexual risk taking) can be biased when in a relationship. She also studies the role of power on relationship commitment.

image source: nymag.com

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