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The embodied social cognition and processes of prejudice: Malodours, disgust and prejudice

Final Report Summary - THE SCENT OF BIGOTRY (The embodied social cognition and processes of prejudice: Malodours, disgust and prejudice)

Executive Summary:

The present research program addressed the link between prejudice and physical contamination. It examined the effects of environmental smell as a cue of physical contamination (malodor) vs. purity (clean smells) on prejudice towards essentialized out-groups. Minority groups targeted by this form of prejudice are attributed with different underlying essence than the corresponding majorities.

Results of 5 experiments showed that malodor increases and clean smell decreases prejudice towards Gypsies, Muslims, Blacks and homosexuals but not towards homeless people, drug addicts or conservative politicians. Pretests confirm that homeless people, drug addicts or conservative politicians are attributed less underlying, unchangeable essence than Gypsies, Muslims, Blacks and homosexuals. It was also demonstrated that the effect of malodor on prejudice was mediated by increased need for physical cleansing. One experiment showed also that malodor increases and clean smell decreases a tendency to implicitly associate Muslims with physical contamination (assessed by Implicit Association Test). In addition, results of 3 studies showed that higher sensitivity to smell predicts prejudice towards ethnic minorities and homosexuals. However, these relationships were only found when people focused on differences between essentialized out-groups and corresponding majorities.


These results advance social psychological theory of prejudice and theories of embodied social cognition. They indicate that prejudice embodied in intergroup contamination concerns is triggered and reduced by olfactory cues of physical contamination vs. purity. They indicate that prejudice may be based on evolved concerns about physical contamination. However, the contemporary expression of such concerns is dependent on a social context. This form of prejudice target social groups that are construed as essentially different.

Socioeconomic impact

The present results suggest that prejudiced reactions may be less likely when the physical environment smells clean. In addition, the expression of prejudice is less likely when people are focused on similarities rather than differences in simple perceptual materials. These findings open a possibility of testing simple and cost-effective ways of reducing prejudice. Interventions can be planned to increase a sense of physical cleanness (e.g. through smell) in the contexts in which decisions are made that are at risk of being biased by prejudice (e.g. court-rooms, human resource management offices, parliaments, immigration offices etc.). Interventions can be planned (e.g. in education) to enhance comparative default focus on similarities rather than differences. Such interventions can be specific to a problem and cost effective, especially in comparison to existing programs based in intergroup contact that are costly and time consuming. Such interventions are likely to have lasting societal impact because they aim at encouraging harmonious intergroup relations.