Politics stink — literally — according to scientists who released a study this week showing that people find the smells of others who share their political viewpoints more viscerally attractive than the odors of their ideological opponents.
The researchers suspect that preferences of this kind stem from evolutionary adaptations that support bonds between friends and allies.
“People could not predict the political ideology of others by smell if you asked them, but they differentially found the smell of those who aligned with them more attractive,” said Brown University’s Dr. Rose McDermott, the head author of the report.
“So I believe smell conveys important information about long-term affinity in political ideology that becomes incorporated into a key component of subconscious attraction,” McDermott said.
Political scientists recruited 146 people between the ages of 18 and 40, many from the student body of Brown University, and asked them to perform an odd task worthy of a fraternity hazing ritual — but all for science.
“Participants washed in fragrance-free shampoo and soap and then taped one 2X2 Johnson & Johnson gauze pad to each underarm using Johnson & Johnson paper tape, all of which we provided,” the researchers wrote in an article published in the American Journal of Political Science.
“Participants wore these pads for 24 hours following a strict protocol that prohibited smoking, drinking, deodorants, perfumes, being around strong odors or candles, animals, eating strong-smelling foods, having sex, or sleeping in a bed with any other people or pets,” the researchers wrote.
The researchers then asked participants to return the pads, soaked in their smell. After freezing them for a week, the researchers presented bits of the gauze pads in vials for test subjects to sniff and rate how pleasing the scent was.
The participants didn’t know whose armpit gauze pad they were smelling, or what they looked like. The subjects gave researchers an idea of their political viewpoints along a "conservative" and "liberal" spectrum.
The political scientists found a fairly strong correlation between politics and perceptions of attractiveness. In some cases, two different people could have markedly different reactions to the same vial. One woman called the bouquet of an ideological soul mate “the best perfume I’d ever smelled,” and asked to take the sample of armpit-gauze home. Meanwhile, someone on the opposite end of the political spectrum found the very same gauze pad to have a “rancid” reek.
The study suggests that there is an evolutionary basis for scents syncing up with politics: If you and your mate agree, your offspring will have a better chance of surviving and thriving.
“Uniform parental rearing practices also provide consistently better outcomes for child learning and development than conflicting value structures,” the researchers said.
As further support for their hypothesis, the researchers noted that studies show that smell plays a role in how people choose mates whose genes would match up well with their own.
The researchers pointed to some studies suggesting that conservatives have a more active “disgust” reaction than liberals to smells that they find unpleasant.
This gut reaction, the authors said, “predicts more conservative positions, particularly around issues involving morality and sexual reproduction. These underlying, physically experienced predilections can come to be expressed as opinions on such topics as abortion, homosexuality, gay marriage, and a host of other ideological topics.”
For their own study, the researchers back up their hypothesis by noting how couples almost always share the same political beliefs.
“Spouses and long-term partners appear to be more similar in their political preferences than almost any other trait,” the study states, citing previous research. “This affinity exists prior to marriage, and the length of marriage appears to have little effect on spousal similarity in ideology.”