When I was growing up, a lot of people, upon learning that my name is Rose, found it clever to say “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” I eventually realized that what Shakespeare was saying when he wrote the line is that names are irrelevant – a rose is a rose, regardless of what we call it. The Shakespeare-quoters were basically saying to me (unknowingly, I assume): your name is irrelevant, but hey, look! I know a line from Shakespeare.
A team of researchers at the Montreal Neurological Institute conducted a study to investigate the role that an odor’s name has on people’s perception of the smell. They had people smell different odors that were accompanied by either a positive, negative, or neutral name. Positive names included countryside farm (is that really a positive-sounding smell?) and dried cloves. Negative ones included dry vomit and dentist’s office. Neutral ones were things like numbers. The names did not actually correspond to the smells, so any effects of name on perception didn’t result from the positive sounding smells actually smelling better. The researchers had participants rate the pleasantness, intensity, and arousal of the smells, and they also collected participants’ heart rates and skin conductances as they smelled the scents as measures of physiological arousal.
Perhaps not surprisingly, smells were rated to be significantly more pleasant and arousing when they were accompanied by positive names than when accompanied by neutral or negative names. Smells were rated as most intense when they had negative names, as opposed to neutral or positive ones. Taken together, the findings suggest that the names we use to describe odors (and many other aspects of our world) affect the way we perceive the actual smells. More specifically, we probably use the odor names to make a prediction, even if it’s a very general one, about what we’re about to experience. These predictions, in turn, seem to color our actual experience with the world, often in self-fulfilling manners.
I wonder if we could harness this knowledge of the effect of positive-sounding odor names to make certain jobs, like latrine odor judges, slightly more pleasant…