To cleanse the palate during dinnertime on the east coast, a story about sniffing strangers’ sweaty ‘pits.
Turns out conservatives smell like flowers and freedom while liberals smell like oppression and ass. Or at least, they do if you’re conservative.
A new study in the American Journal of Political Science from Brown’s Rose McDermott, Harvard’s Dustin Tingley, and Penn State’s Peter K. Hatemi has found preliminary evidence that people are more attracted to the body odors of others with similar political beliefs. In the study, participants rated the attractiveness of vials of body odors obtained from “strong liberals” and “strong conservatives” on a five-point scale. The participants had no prior knowledge of which vial belonged to which partisan armpit.
Some participants had particularly strong reactions to the vials, as the paper explains:
In one particularly illustrative case, a participant asked the experimenter if she could take one of the vials home with her because she thought it was ‘the best perfume I ever smelled’; the vial was from a male who shared an ideology similar to the evaluator. She was preceded by another respondent with an ideology opposite to the person who provided the exact same sample; this participant reported that the vial had ‘gone rancid’ and suggested it needed to be replaced.
WaPo describes the nuts and bolts of the study. Get a bunch of people to fill out a political questionnaire, then have them wear pads under their arms for 24 hours. Get another bunch of people, have them fill out the political questionnaire, then give each of them a snoutful of those musky pads. Result: A “small but significant” correlation between how pleasant the smeller finds the smell and how ideologically similar the source of the smell is to the smeller, i.e. liberals smell better to liberals and conservatives smell better to conservatives. Which makes sense, as there’s a fairly strong evolutionary reason to pair up with someone who shares your political beliefs: A household where mom and dad agree on the big stuff like religion and politics is more likely to be a tranquil household, and a tranquil household is better for the offspring who are responsible for passing along mom’s and dad’s genes.
Makes me wonder, though, when and why we evolved the ability to sniff out politics. It’s useful as a first-blush mate-screening mechanism, I guess, but it’s surely not foolproof. Talking politics with a love interest must be a better way to weed out the conservative wheat from the liberal chaff (or vice versa, for our liberal readers) than giving them a good snort. The response to that, presumably, is that most of human evolution happened in the age before language, when biological cues were the only way to communicate. Okay, but … why was political compatibility necessary in a time before language? What were cavemen moms and dads grunt-arguing about at the dinner table? Either this smell cue is a late-developing feature in humans, arising after civilization had already begun to gel and forms of political organization became relevant, or it’s related not so much to politics as to the deep psychological underpinnings of liberalism and conservatism. E.g., maybe some people belonged to ancient tribes which, due to their environments, required greater regimentation and respect for authority among their members to succeed. Over many ages, a scent cue formed in men and women who are naturally predisposed to have greater respect for authority, so that they could find each other. As civilization grew up later, that impulse of respect for authority became a trait associated with conservatism. If that’s how it happened, then it’s not so much “liberalism” and “conservatism” that we’re smelling in each other than the primitive impulses that inform each.
Exit question: Could the scent cue have developed to help screen out liars? Many an attractive conservative girl’s been assured by a liberal male admirer, no doubt, that he loves loves loves the NRA and thinks our society could do with a healthy dose of prayer in public schools. (Again, vice versa for liberal readers.) That ‘pit stink might help you tell the fakers from the real Rush listeners.