Researchers scent link between odor, concentration

February 20, 1991|By Mary Knudson | Mary Knudson,Sun Staff Correspondent

WASHINGTON -- Picture yourself in your most tiring work setting -- the end of a long day of entering data into a computer, listening to speeches, taking an important test, directing air traffic. You feel yourself losing concentration. What do you need? A break? A cup of coffee? A cold beer? Guess again.

Peppermint. Or a fragrance called Muguet that smells like lily of the valley.

Those were the findings in a study by two University of Cincinnati psychologists, William Dember and Joel Warm, released yesterday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science here.

For the study, the two isolated participants in a booth where either puffs of pure air, peppermint or Muguet were administered through a mask every five minutes while the individuals tried to perform a tough 40-minute computerized test.

The test required participants to hit a button every time a certain pattern of lines, very similar to another pattern, appeared. The test was concocted to require close vigilance.

It was, in fact, exasperating, Dr. Dember admitted yesterday. "Typically subjects feel pretty rotten after the test," he said. "Their mood is crummy."

The crummy mood of the group that got the fragrances wafted under their noses did not change, according to Dr. Dember. But their work performance did.

The group smelling peppermint or flowers intermittently had a 20 percent higher accuracy rate during the early part of the test period than the group getting charcoal-filtered room air.

Performance dropped for all groups over the course of the 40 minutes, but the fragrance smellers consistently outperformed the plain air group, the researcher said.

In a test designed so that participants could administer the fragrances to themselves at will, performance was higher for women, but not men.

The researchers said they could not explain the difference.

A different study bringing people nose to nose with fragrances raises such questions as: Could we have avoided the gulf war? Or the New York Daily News strike? Or many other situations that involve conflict and negotiation?

In that study, Robert A. Baron of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., found that exposure to room air freshener rTC made people "more willing to make concessions in negotiations, resolve conflicts and set higher goals for themselves." The fragrances differed but were always ones to which an individual study group member reacted positively.

But, the New York researcher cautioned, these results don't mean room air fresheners are for everyone. For example, he said, a bank loan officer might not want to be lulled into making concessions too easily.

Dr. Dember said that other studies will be done to see if foul-smelling odors sharpen concentration as well as pleasant ones.

The fragrance studies were sponsored by the Fragrance Research Fund, an industry group. The researchers said that employers ought to wait for follow-up studies attempting to reinforce the earlier data and test the effects of other kinds of odors before running out to buy supplies of peppermint and room air fresheners to bolster employee performance.

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