Science proves a rose by any other name doesn't smell as sweet

Illustration for article titled Science proves a rose by any other name doesnt smell as sweet

Shakespeare might be the greatest writer in the history of the English language, but he was no experimental psychologist. Giving odors positive or negative names actually has a major effect on how how we perceive them.


Of course, scientists weren't musing over the impossibility of love between two warring noble houses from Verona. Instead, they designed an experiment where people were presented with the same odors under different names:

"We examined whether presenting an odor with a positive, neutral, or negative name would influence how people perceive it. In experiment 1, 40 participants rated 15 odors for their pleasantness, intensity, and arousal. In experiment 2, 30 participants passively smelled 10 odors while their skin conductance (SC), heart rate (HR), and sniffing were recorded."


The negative names given to positive odors were generally pretty brilliant, if not quite up to the standard of stench blossoms and crapweeds. "Pine needles" was paired with "old turpentine", "ripe banana" with "paint thinner", and "eucalyptus oil" with "Vick's Vapo Rub", which I'm sure the good people at Vick's are just thrilled about.

Then there's my personal favorite: the positive odor "dried cloves" becomes the negative smell "dentist's office." I wasn't aware the dentist's office really had a smell, but sure, why not? Although I'd be remiss if I ignored the unsubtle brilliance of taking the positive name "Parmesan cheese" and turning it into "dry vomit", which may say more about how the researchers feel about Parmesan cheese than anything else.

So with all these positive and negative names flying around, what did the researchers discover?

"We found significant overall effects of odor names on perceived pleasantness, intensity, and arousal. Pleasantness showed the most robust effect of odor names: the same odors were perceived as more pleasant when presented with positive than with neutral and negative names and when presented with neutral than with negative names...Taken together, these experiments show that there is a lot to a name, at least when it comes to olfactory perception."


Did science just passive-aggressively call Shakespeare an idiot? Maybe not, but I love the idea that 21st century science will be dedicated to proving every last Shakespearean bon mot and turn of phrase to be scientifically incorrect.



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The only funny part of the "Armin Tamzarian" episode of The Simpsons (generally believed to mark the show's fall from greatness):

Lisa: A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

Bart: Not if you called 'em stench blossoms.

Homer: Or crapweeds.

Marge: I'd sure hate to get a dozen crapweeds for Valentine's Day. I'd rather have candy.

Homer: Not if they were called scumdrops.