Browse By

Science of fragrance : Why some perfumes are so irresistible

When the wise men spotted the star in the north, as it had been written, they carried with them gifts to pay homage to the new king.  Featuring prominently were gifts of fragrances. Frankincense and myrrh aka the ancestors of modern perfumes. Granted, the nativity story is  powerful. In fact, it might well be argued that the generosity of the wise men helped build an entire festival of consumerism every end year. We start from here as we explore how socialization, evolutionary neurobiology and evolutionary psychology have a say in mystifying fragrance and making perfumes so irresistible.

Fragrance for women

Bewitched by a perfume, does the answer lie in how we were socialized?

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]ith the numerous references to fragrant substances in religious text, such as the wise-men gifts of fragrances, it is convenient to link fragrances to spirituality. This causality, incentivize us to conclude that religious practices of yesterday (burning of incense for example ) contribute to modern-day mysticism of perfumes.  After all, we all agree that there is something about a good fragrance that gets to the soul.

With a good fragrance, it always feels like you are Kayaking at the arctic circle as you watch the sun rise

However convenient it is using the power of religion to explain why perfumes are so irresistible, the gaps in such a theory are obvious. Not every one of us is religious; neither are we all believers. Besides, even among the religious, this irresistible, almost innate, hard-wired appeal of a good fragrance has nothing to do with the implied dogma that fragrant scents are the stuff of gods. That the burning of a fragrant plant appeases divinity. As Micheal Bywater writing for The Independent in Scents and sensibility: The history of perfume argues:

History would have it that perfume, whose very name comes from the Latin pro fumum, “through smoke”, was originally reserved for the gods. It doesn’t hold water. What the gods wanted was the rank bloodsmoke of sacrificial victims, and if a more fragrant offering were burnt before them, it was to disguise the smell from us, not to please them.


Wherever your stand with religion, it is acceptable that a good scent is known to do more than appease royalty or neuter the bad smells from reaching the olfactory cells of pious types burning live sacrifices.

A good fragrance is like a charm. You’ll find yourself hugging a stranger while all they had intended for was a shake on their extended hand. Trust me, the embarrassment is real. Try as you may, finding a reason good enough to explain your plastering of yourself on their torso to naught.

Fret not though, it could be worse: like missing your stop on the commute or getting off before your destination. A friend once confessed to suffering from such an insidious case of fragrance induced zoombie-osis and I couldn’t stop laughing. All that embarrassment because of a wicked fragrance.

The enticing allure of fragrance; is it evolutionary?

For all the enchanting powers of a good fragrance, with time, thanks to science, it gets to a point where we can no longer smell what perfume we are wearing.  Or the smell of smoke on you from cooking with firewood after a few days stay in the village with your folks. We all know of that gush of air full of cheap perfume, the sweet esters of alcohol, armpits and cigarette smoke that hits us as we step into a nightclub; that as soon as we immerse in, we can’t pick thereafter.

Bee on a leaf: At times. a good fragrance has a simillar effect on humans as a pollen does

The importance of pheromones is well recognized in other life forms. What is mans answer to this  important signalling system?

Somehow, good or bad the scent, we adapt. A mechanism gets switched on and we are good.  Neurobiology places this mechanism in the limbic system. And oh, those weird behaviors we talked about – like following around strangers – are also in part mediated by the limbic system.Part of the structures that form the base of the human brain, the limbic system is a collection of neurons with probably the most evolutionary significance . It is the nerve-center, pun-intended, for all our emotions and behaviors.

The role of sensory adaption

Sensory adaption is a phenomenon that occurs when the limbic system ‘ignores’ less threatening smells –like that of a perfume — so as to prioritize the scanning for more threatening smells — like say a decomposing corpse. This mechanism serves as a ‘primitive’ method of species self-preservation by identifying threats and opportunities in the environment.

Sadly, all we can make of sensory adaption  in explaining why we find perfumes so irresistible is that it alludes to an innate mechanism (the sensory mechanism of smell) whereby we recognize what’s good for us. If we picture this mechanism as a pattern matching thing. then it’s no different to all the things we were made to do.

How evolutionary psychology ties everything up to ensure a fragrance is made to entice

In the book Applied Evolutionary Psychology, Oxford: Oxford University Press (2012) Roberts argues in the chapter on “Evolutionary psychology and perfume design”, that

the process of perfume design would be enhanced if it was developed with greater understanding of the communicative value of the underlying body odour of the individual who uses it? Evolutionary psychology has, and will continue to, produce insights into the informative capacity of body odour in human perception and its role in social interactions, in five main areas: individual recognition cueing and kin-related behaviour, cues of current state, mediation of female reproductive physiology, cues of underlying good-genes, and cues of complementary genes in partner choice. Since these cues have been shaped by selection over evolutionary time, and play a role in co-ordination of key social interactions, incorporation of this knowledge into perfume design could potentially provide a springboard for transforming the success of specific perfumes.

Marketing Science

So far, we’ve explored how socialization, evolutionary neurobiology and evolutionary psychology have a say in mystifying fragrances and making perfumes so irresistible. Still, our exploration would be incomplete if we didn’t consider the environment at the ‘operational level’. A discussion on the science of fragrance would be incomplete if we didn’t consider the factors at play when we are deciding on a fragrance for men or perfume for women.

Advertising billboard simillar to the ones in fragrance as

By this we refer to the conditioning from the marketing of perfumes that invariably subliminally educates us that a good fragrance equals a better sex life. The attack is two-pronged. First, the problem. As Allison Berry writes for Time: The Psychology of Fragrance Ad Casting:

There is an inherent paradox built into fragrance advertising, which is the notion of persuading the consumer to buy a product whose essential function can’t be conveyed, seen or felt through a broadcast spot or a page in a magazine.

Then the solution ?

Quoting Karen Post of Branding Diva, Marian Bendeth; global fragrance expert and founder of the Sixth Scents consultancy; Catherine Walsh, senior vice-president of marketing at Coty Prestige; Karen Grant, vice-president and global beauty industry analyst at NPD Group; the author reveals the strategy employed by Ad agencies running campaigns for designer perfumes that make them so irresistible to the consumer:

  • First task is to pick a famous — pretty or handsome — face with the ability to  “evoke the right emotions based on the brand strategy,” credibility that is aligned with the fragrance, and a capacity to “engage beyond just appearing in a print ad or a broadcast ad.”
  • Then is to package the celebrity via such old tricks like enhancing their good looks, sensuality and good photography so as the celebrity identifies with the target demographic.
  • Finally, the Ad agency designs the perfect mix of media to place the ad in the right channels so as to generate maximum interest.

Join the conversation by leaving a comment.