Odors Are More Sensitive to Evaluative Conditioning than Sounds

  • Anika Pützer
  • Tobias Otto
  • Oliver T. WolfEmail author



Stimuli of different modalities can acquire an affective value via evaluative conditioning. This process describes a shift in perceived affective quality of a neutral stimulus towards the hedonics of an associated affective stimulus. The olfactory system, as compared to other modalities, might be especially prone to attributing affective value to an odor due to its close neuroanatomical connectivity with brain regions processing emotion.


In the present study, we investigated whether perceived affective quality of odors is more sensitive to evaluative conditioning than that of sounds. For this purpose, 48 healthy participants (50% male) rated unfamiliar and emotionally neutral odors and sounds before and after pairing with either aversive or neutral pictures.


Our results show a stronger decrease in odor valence and stronger increases in arousal and dominance ratings for odors paired with aversive compared to neutral pictures. For sounds, ratings of valence, arousal, and dominance were independent of picture emotionality.


Odors appear to be more sensitive to evaluative conditioning than sounds. Our findings extend existing modality comparisons mainly focusing on characteristics of odor-associated memories by specifically looking at affective quality of the odor itself in associative learning.


Perceived affective quality of a stimulus goes along with the tendency to approach or avoid this stimulus. For odors, it is especially prone to change into an aversive direction. This may have implications for food and fragrance choices but also for the understanding of clinical conditions in which odors become highly aversive, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.


Evaluative conditioning Associative learning Affective quality Odor Sound Modality comparison 



This work was supported by the German Research foundation (DFG) project B4 of the Collaborative Research Center (SFB) 874 “Integration and Representation of Sensory processes.”

We would like to thank Claire Sulmont-Rossé for providing us with the odorant ratings obtained in her 2012 study and the authors of the Nencki Affective Picture System for making the pictures available to us. We gratefully acknowledge the help of Jonas Chan in proofreading and Dennis Pomrehn, Lea-Marie Knöppel, Viviane Gallus, and Melanie Stockmann in data acquisition.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with ethical standards of the institutional research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki Declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. The study was approved by the local ethics committee of the Faculty of Psychology.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

Supplementary material

12078_2018_9255_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (1011 kb)
ESM 1 (PDF 0.98 MB)


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, Department of Cognitive PsychologyRuhr University BochumBochumGermany
  2. 2.International Graduate School of NeuroscienceRuhr University BochumBochumGermany

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