Journal of Chemical Ecology

, Volume 32, Issue 8, pp 1635-1645

First online:

Olfaction and Identification of Unrelated Individuals: Examination of the Mysteries of Human Odor Recognition

  • Shannon B. OlssonAffiliated withDepartment of Entomology, NYS Agricultural Experiment Station, Cornell University Email author 
  • , Joan BarnardAffiliated withBiology Department, Geneva High School
  • , Linda TurriAffiliated withBiology Department, Geneva High School

Rent the article at a discount

Rent now

* Final gross prices may vary according to local VAT.

Get Access


Although several studies have examined the effect of human odor on kin recognition and mate choice, few have focused on the impact of familiarity on recognition of nonrelatives by olfactory cues. As part of a program designed to engage students in scientific research, 53 high school students researched, planned, and implemented a project to analyze the effect of odor on human recognition of, and preference for, friends, sex, and self. A total of 37 students, including friends of their choosing, wore T-shirts for three consecutive nights. During that time, subjects were controlled for exposure to extraneous perfumes, household odors, and other humans. The students were then asked to smell a series of five shirts and evaluate them with respect to pleasantness. Students were also asked to identify the shirts belonging to themselves and their friend, and determine the sex of the person who wore each shirt. Although subjects were unable to distinguish sex by olfactory cues alone, a significant percentage of subjects were able to identify their own odor (51.6%), as well as distinguish the odor cue of their friend (38.7%). Additionally, subjects who could not identify their friend's cue were apt to choose the odor of a member of the opposite sex as their friend. This result was not believed to rely on odor preference as neither individual, friend, nor stranger odors were rated significantly different with respect to odor pleasantness. The ability to recognize friends via odor cues lends credence to the hypothesis that association and familiarity are important aspects of conspecific olfactory recognition in humans. Furthermore, this study augments evidence that olfaction may supplement visual and auditory cues used in human conspecific and kin recognition.


Kin recognition Human social behavior Association Familiarity