People are subconsciously more fair and generous when they are in “clean-smelling” environments, according to a new study entitled “The Smell of Virtue.”
The study, led by Katie Liljenquist, assistant professor of organizational leadership at BYU’s Marriott School of Management, found a dramatic improvement in “ethical behavior” with the addition of citrus-scented Windex into an environment.
According to the study’s findings, a fresh-smelling environment can be as effective as costly and obtrusive surveillance and security in the workplace.
The first experiment of the study evaluated fairness. Participants played a classic “trust game” in which subjects received $12 of real money and were told that it was sent by an anonymous partner in another room. The subjects were asked to decide how much of it to keep, versus returning it to their partners who had trusted them to divide it fairly.
Results of the experiment concluded that subjects in clean-scented rooms were less likely to exploit the trust of their partners, and returned a “significantly higher” share of the money: an average of $2.81 in the unscented room versus $5.33 in the “clean” room.
A second experiment evaluated whether clean scents would encourage charitable behavior. Subjects were asked to indicate their interest in volunteering with a campus organization for a Habitat for Humanity service project and donating funds to the cause.
Participants in the “clean” room were significantly more interested in volunteering (4.21 on a 7-point scale) than those in a normal room (3.29), and 22 percent of “clean” room participants offered to donate money, compared to just 6 percent of participants in the unscented room.
Follow-up questions confirmed that participants were unaware of a scent in the room.
“Basically, our study shows that morality and cleanliness can go hand-in-hand,” co-author Adam Galinsky of Northwestern University said in a statement. “Researchers have known for years that scents play an active role in reviving positive or negative experiences. Now, our research can offer more insight into the links between people’s charitable actions and their surroundings.”
The study, authored by Liljenquist, Galinsky and the University of Toronto’s Chen-Bo Zhong, will be published in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science.