August 31, 2018
Are you all by your lonesome while your partner is out-of-town? Just sniffing an item recently worn by your partner may bring comfort and stress relief when you have to be apart, according to a results of a study conducted at the University of British Columbia.
The study, published in the January edition of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that women feel calmer after being exposed to their male partner’s scent. Conversely, being exposed to a stranger’s scent had the opposite effect and raised levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.
“Many people wear their partner’s shirt or sleep on their partner’s side of the bed when [he or she] is away, but may not realize why they engage in these behaviors,” explains Marlise Hofer, lead study author and a graduate student in the university’s Department of Psychology, in a release from the university. “Our findings suggest that a partner’s scent, alone, even without [his or her] physical presence, can be a powerful tool to help reduce stress.”
Researchers studied 96 opposite-sex couples, with the women acting as the “smellers”—because, in case you weren’t aware, they typically have a stronger sense of smell.
Men were asked to wear a clean tee-shirt for 24 hours and to avoid deodorants, scented body products, smoking, and eating certain foods that might impact their natural scent. The T-shirts were then frozen to maintain the scent.
The women were randomly assigned to smell a tee-shirt that was either totally clean, or had been worn by their partner or a stranger. They were not told which one they had been given. The women underwent a stress test that involved a mock job interview and a mental math task, and also answered questions about their stress levels and provided saliva samples used to measure their cortisol levels.
The researchers asked women to act as the “smellers” because they tend to have a better sense of smell than men.
They found that women who had smelled their partner’s shirt felt less stressed—both before and after the stress test. Those who both smelled their partner’s shirt and also correctly identified the scent also had lower levels of cortisol, suggesting that the stress-reducing benefits of a partner’s scent are strongest when women know what they are smelling.
Meanwhile, women who had smelled a stranger’s scent had higher cortisol levels throughout the stress test. The authors speculate that evolutionary factors could influence why the stranger’s scent affected cortisol levels.
“From a young age, humans fear strangers, especially strange males, so it is possible that a strange male scent triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response that leads to elevated cortisol,” said Hofer. “This could happen without us being fully aware of it.”
Frances Chen, the study’s senior author and assistant professor in the UBC department of psychology, said the findings could have practical implications to help people cope with stressful situations when they’re away from loved ones.
“With globalization, people are increasingly traveling for work and moving to new cities,” said Chen. “Our research suggests that something as simple as taking an article of clothing that was worn by your loved one could help lower stress levels when you’re far from home.”
The research was supported by an American Psychological Foundation Visionary Grant, as well as by a UBC faculty of arts humanities and social sciences grant, and a UBC faculty of arts graduate student research grant.
The study was co-authored by Hanne Collins and Ashley Whillans while they were at UBC.
Research contact: firstname.lastname@example.org