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Family Scents: Developmental Changes in the Perception of Kin Body Odor?

Abstract

There is increasing evidence that human body odors are involved in adaptive behaviors, such as parental attachment in infants or partner choice in adults. The aim of the present study was to investigate changes in body-odor perception around puberty, a period largely ignored for odor-mediated behavioral changes, despite major changes in social needs and in odor emission and perception. Nine families with two children (8 pre-pubertal, aged 7–10, and 10 pubertal, aged 11–18) evaluated body odors of family members and unfamiliar individuals for pleasantness, intensity, and masculinity, and performed a recognition task. The hypothesized emergence of a parent–child mutual aversion for the odor of opposite-sex family members at puberty was not found, contradicting one of the few studies on the topic (Weisfeld et al., J. Exp. Child Psychol. 85:279-295, 2003). However, some developmental changes were observed, including reduced aversion for odor of the same-sex parent, and increased ability of adults, compared to children, to recognize odor of family members. Sex and personality (depressive and aggressive traits) also significantly influenced odor judgments. Further research with larger samples is needed to investigate the poorly explored issue of how olfactory perception of self and family members develops, and how it could correlate with normal reorganizations in social interactions at adolescence.

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Acknowledgments

The authors thank all the participants, Kevin Reid (Director of Ness Botanical Garden, Neston, UK) for offering free family tickets to the participants, and two anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments on the manuscript. This research was supported by Fyssen Foundation, Paris.

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Correspondence to Camille Ferdenzi.

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Ferdenzi, C., Schaal, B. & Roberts, S.C. Family Scents: Developmental Changes in the Perception of Kin Body Odor?. J Chem Ecol 36, 847–854 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10886-010-9827-x

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Key Words

  • Body odor
  • Preferences
  • Kin recognition
  • Mate choice
  • Attachment
  • Axilla
  • Puberty
  • Personality