by Signo Uddenberg
What do you remember the most about your last trip to the ocean? The view of the sun as it dipped beneath the horizon? The sound of the crashing waves? The feel of the sand as it cooled your feet? Or was it the smell of the ocean mist as it quietly moved deep into your nasal cavities?
It may be a surprise to many, like myself, who are visually oriented that the sense of smell is the sense modality most directly linked to memory. This is thought to be in part due to its close proximity to the brain’s limbic system — the oldest part of the brain related to emotions and emotional memory (Herz & Engen, 1996).
But it’s not just memories that smell can make us feel and remember. Our olfactory senses (smell) help us imagine experiences yet to be. For instance, what might that summer dress look like by the ocean? Well, with a sniff of fresh ocean mist, I might find myself back at that ocean beach, but this time with my new summer dress. And with the positive emotion evoked by the pleasant scent, I’m more likely to positively evaluate the dress and increase my intention to buy (Spangenberg et al., 1996).
Marketers have known the power of smell for decades. Bakeries have used chocolate-chip scents to lure passersby into their stores, and used-car salesmen have employed the “new car” scent to make used cars seem more attractive.
If our sense of smell affects our emotions and cognitive abilities so strongly during fleeting interactions with scents, how are we being affected by the odors all around us during our working day?
Japanese researchers are arguably the furthest ahead in studying how smell affects productivity in the workplace. In one oft-cited study, 13 Japanese key-hole punchers were monitored during an eight hour day over the course of one month. When their environment was infused with lemon-scented aroma, their error rate dropped by 54%, and their self-reported satisfaction with their working environment increased.
Additionally, recent studies show that smells such as peppermint and jasmine heighten our cognitive performance on problem-solving. In one study, researchers tested how the smell of peppermint affected participants undertaking three common work related tasks – typing, memorization, and alphabetization. A significant increase was found in the “gross speed, net speed, and accuracy of the typing task” as well as improved performance during the alphabetization task.
The same performance enhancement has been studied in athletes undergoing physical activities. Athletes performed a treadmill exercise stress test under four odorant conditions. When peppermint scent was applied, the researchers found a significant reduction in perceived physical workload, temporal workload, effort, and frustration. Similarly, dental patients experience higher levels of calmness when orange odorant is applied during dental procedures, suggesting that scents have a noticeable impact on our physiological systems, and in turn our psychological systems, during moments of heightened stress.
So how is smell affecting you? Is it focusing your mind in the late afternoon when your biological clock suggests it’s time to sleep? Or is it distracting your thoughts, reminding you of how hungry you are right as you are about to finish an assignment? Or how the trash needs to be taken out more often, and you’re frustrated that you have to be the one to do it!
In the Innovation Studio at MKThink we’re focused on better understanding how the subtle characteristics of your daily environment, odors among them, either enable or inhibit the optimal performance of your activities. We believe that your environment is crucial to your success, and we want to make sure that you’re doing everything to ensure that it doesn’t stink. Literally and figuratively!