Women Smelling Men's Masked Body Odors Show Enhanced Harm Aversion in Moral Dilemmas


Among the most unnoticeable stimuli providing social information, body odors are powerful social tools that can modulate behavioral and neural processing. It has recently been shown that body odors can affect moral decision-making, by increasing the activations in neural areas processing social and emotional information during the decision process. The aim of the present study was twofold: 1) to test whether body odors selectively affect decisions to real dilemmatic moral scenario (incongruent) vs. fake (congruent) dilemmas, and 2) to characterize whether the impact of masked body odors is modulated by four conceptual factors: personal force, intentionality, benefit recipient and evitability. Women chose between utilitarian (sacrificing a person’s life in order to save other lives) or deontological actions (deciding against the harmful action) in 64 moral dilemmas under the exposure of a neutral fragrance (masker) or a masked male body odor. Our results showed that the masked male body odor did not specifically affect the answers to real and fake dilemmas but instead, its effect is modulating whether the agent harms the victim in a direct or indirect manner (personal force) to save herself or only other people (benefit recipient). In particular, when exposed to the masked body odor participants gave more deontological answers when the harm was indirect and only other people were saved. These data support the hypothesis that body odors induce participants to perceive the individuals described in moral dilemmas as more real, triggering harm avoidance.

Physiology & Behavior, (201), pp. 212–220
Valentina Parma
Valentina Parma
Research Assistant Professor in Psychology