Sweetening the Deal with Scents

Essential oils are on trend today and many people use them in homes to get in the right mindset or mood. For example, some people say that lavender is supposed to calm a busy mind at bedtime; citrus (orange or grapefruit) is energizing and will add some pep to your step; and eucalyptus – also a natural antiseptic – can be used as a decongestant or for muscle pains. 


“Do scents really help us feel and think better, or is it a myth?”


It turns out that even researchers have found that scent has a powerful impact on our mental and physical states. There is not quite enough evidence that easily indicates certain scents are superior to others. But we know enough about the impact of pleasant scents on mood to know that as long as we are smelling something good, we feel better.

Pleasant scents can be used to improve our mood while the absence of scent can leave little or no impression. So whether it’s in a lab or in our homes, it certainly is true that diffusing scent can be a simple way to improve how we (and our guests) feel.


Studies show (1,2):

– The presence of scent (vs. scent absence) increases satisfaction.

– Scent presence increased buying intentions for a product in retail contexts.

– High intensity (vs low intensity) scent in supermarkets was associated with better store level sales. Customers also spent more time in store and evaluated the store environment more positively.

– Mood was a strong mediator of the effect of scent on positive evaluations.


Clearly scenting is valuable – both in our homes and in the events and meetings we help design.


It Makes Sense

The human sense of smell is alarmingly sophisticated. Even now, there is no analytical tool that can detect such a variety of odor molecules as clearly and conveniently as the human nose.

When we smell, we also have human perception, which no analytical tool can measure. For example, a machine cannot intuitively tell that a new, complex scent blend will be good or bad. But if we smelled Dolce & Gabbana cologne mixed with the aroma of freshly cooked French fries- most of us could automatically tell if people will find that smell good/bad… even if we have never encountered it before. Two great smells can come together and make something truly awful or amazing. All we have to do is get a whiff to find out.

The ability to judge if new blends of scent are good or bad, such as coffee and flowers, is uniquely human. There really isn’t a machine that can assess good/bad smells better than the human nose.


Processing Scents

When we inhale, air travels through our nasal passageways. Small cellular projections (that look like hair) line the airway and convert odor molecules into an electrical signal. This signal is then transmitted to the brain.


“With visual information, we consciously identify an object before we decide how we feel about it. But for scents, emotional responses can occur without us knowing anything about what we are smelling and where it is coming from. Our immediate, involuntary response to scents makes our sense of smell quite unique.”


When people describe scents, they most often refer to the pleasantness or intensity of the scent. But, this is not a very detailed description of scent characteristics. In general, our ability to detect odors and label them positive or negative is quite strong, but our ability to identify and recognize individual odors is relatively limited. We know that something smells good, but we might not realize that we are smelling a hint of fresh laundry, lavender and pine needles.

We are very good at detecting scents and determining if we like them or not… but we are not always able to tell exactly what it is that we are smelling. Anything from fruit to pine needles can be mixed together with different oils and natural/artificial components.


So while our sense of smell is quite powerful, it is not without its drawbacks. Scents can influence us on a subconscious level (for good or for bad) and we can’t always tell exactly what we’re smelling. Either way, using scent is a great way to improve your next event, whether it is in your home or at a major corporate venue.


Key Takeaways

– Our sense of smell is quite powerful, far better than a machine

– We can tell if a scent is positive or negative, but aren’t great at describing it

– Scent can influence us without our conscious awareness

– Pleasant scents can improve our mood, evaluations of scented environments and more


Further reading (references):
(1) Roschk, Loureiro and Breitsohl (2017)
(2) Leenders, Smidts, & Haji (2016)