Previous research suggests that putrescine — the chemical compound that gives decomposing organic matter its distinctive odor — may trigger an inborn evolutionary mechanism that prompts individuals to avoid the smell of decay. The purpose of these two experiments was to investigate the effects of exposure to putrescine on human cognition.
Two between-subjects experiments (experiment 1 N = 109; experiment 2 N = 108) compared individuals exposed to either putrescine, ammonia, or water. Experiment 1 measures included odorant ratings (i.e., intensity, familiarity, repugnance, goodness), implicit measures (i.e., word completion task, moral judgment vignettes, and opinions on the death penalty), and explicit measures (i.e., death attitudes, self-esteem, and life satisfaction); experiment 2 measures included odorant ratings and life satisfaction.
In experiment 1, there were no differences by odorant condition on implicit measures; however, those exposed to putrescine reported higher life satisfaction than those exposed to water. These results were replicated in experiment 2.
Exposure to putrescine may activate psychological threat management processes, which are then interpreted as higher life satisfaction.
Human olfactory perception is sensitive to putrescine, and putrescine may exert some subtle psychological effects on human cognition.
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Barnett, M.D., Mokhtari, B.K. & Moore, J.M. Smelling Death, Loving Life: the Impact of Olfactory Chemosignals on Life Satisfaction. Chem. Percept. 15, 95–103 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12078-022-09297-8