Nice to smell you: Are we more like dogs than we think?

Imagine the following scenario: You’re walking down the street, and you see someone interesting/attractive/well-dressed walking towards you. As they pass, a gust of air passes with them. Do you a) continue breathing normally, or b) surreptitiously inhale a little deeper? 

If your answer is b), you’re not alone. (If your answer is a), are you sure?)

image via

We all know that when dogs meet up, they sniff each other’s behinds. This is purportedly because dogs are “speaking with chemicals,” and it’s how they ask about another dog’s diet, gender, and emotional state.

But do humans do this?

Well, yes. Israeli researchers found that we’re not that different from our canine friends after all. They conducted an experiment where participants were asked to wait in a room. Researchers came in and shook their hands. Hidden cameras show that minutes (and sometimes even seconds) after the researcher left the room, the participants raised their hands to their face and took a deep sniff. (Their physiological responses were being monitored as well, so the researchers could see how deeply they were inhaling through their noses.) (Watch the video. It’s seriously worth it.)

What’s more, the results showed that participants smelled their “shaking” hand when it had been in contact with a same-sex researcher, and smelled their other hand when they had shaken hands with an opposite-sex researcher. 

The importance of smell in interactions with other people is global. In Burma, a common greeting is translated as “Give me a smell.” In New Guinea, some tribe members say goodbye “by placing their hands under each other’s armpits and rubbing themselves with the other’s scent.” And in Germany, if someone’s not your cup of tea, you say “ich kann ihn nicht riechen,” (“I can’t smell him”).

There’s an evolutionary logic to all of this: People who are more genetically diverse will smell better to you. By smelling other people, you are evaluating their potential as a mate, and the well-being of your potential children.

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