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This is our favourite smell, no matter where we’re from

People all over the world have a preference for this kind of smell, according to a new study.

Fundamental Research icon Fundamental Research

Does chocolate or roses come to mind when you think about your favourite smell? Scientists from Sweden’s Karolinska Institute and the University of Oxford have sniffed out the answer and presented their findings in the journal ‘Current Biology’.

The nose knows

We may not speak the same language, but at least we can agree on what smells we like or dislike. Until now, it was believed that culture primarily influenced our preferences. Study results showed that the structure of the odour molecule determines whether we turn our nose up at a smell. “We wanted to examine if people around the world have the same smell perception and like the same types of odour, or whether this is something that is culturally learned,” commented first author Dr Artin Arshamian from Karolinska Institute’s Department of Clinical Neuroscience in a news release. “Traditionally it has been seen as cultural, but we can show that culture has very little to do with it.” Dr Arshamian added: “Cultures around the world rank different odours in a similar way no matter where they come from, but odour preferences have a personal – although not cultural – component.”

It’s personal, not cultural

To test whether a person’s smell preferences were associated with their culture, the scientists investigated nine groups of people with lifestyles ranging from Thai hunter gatherers to New York City dwellers. In all, 235 participants were asked to rank 10 unique scents on a scale of pleasant to unpleasant. Vanilla ranked first, followed by peaches. Odours of cheese, apple juice and sweaty feet were disliked the most. Why do we agree on the best and worst smells in the world, regardless of culture? The team believes that as humans evolved, being able to sniff out bad odours increased their chances of survival. “Now we know that there’s universal odour perception that is driven by molecular structure and that explains why we like or dislike a certain smell,” Dr Arshamian explained. “The next step is to study why this is so by linking this knowledge to what happens in the brain when we smell a particular odour.”


smell, odour, nose, culture, vanilla, scent