You’re Being Tricked Into Buying That Awful Sweater!
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“We isolated these scents, so people liked both scents at the same level,” he says. “The only difference you could attribute it to was the complexity.”
That store that wants to celebrate Christmas with a mulled-wine scent, then, might think again.
“Even if it’s congruent with Christmas, it’s complex,” he points out. “What about one of the elements of mulled wine? Like cinnamon sticks. Or justspruce. Or just pine.”
Coincidentally, on the plane back from Switzerland, Spangenberg says, he came across an article in the inflight magazine about a famous French perfumer, who has made scents for Chanel and Yves Saint-Laurent, including one of the best-selling scents in modern history (Spangenberg couldn’t remember which). And while most perfumes have two, three-hundred elements in them, how many did the world-famous perfumer put in his best-selling scent?
“Eleven,” says Spangenberg.
THE QUESTION THAT REMAINS IN ALL OF THIS is: why? Why do we prefer simple scents to complex ones, and how are we driven to spend more at a retail store because of that?
Spangenberg followed up the Swiss experiment with more testing back on campus in Pullman. In two similar experiments, he and his colleagues had undergraduates attempt to solve a series of computerized anagrams in unscented, orange-scented, and orange-basil-tea-scented conditions.
What they found was that students who tackled the anagrams in an orange-scented room solved more of the problems than those in other conditions, and solved them more quickly.
Spangenberg and his colleagues suspect this might all have to do with something called “processing fluency,” or the ease with which your brain processes external stimuli. Other research has suggested that the easier your mind can make sense of a stimulus, the more you tend to like that stimulus, and the more you tend to like things having to do with that stimulus.
All of this can happen on a completely unconscious level, and when it comes to smells, it may be especially far below the surface of your awareness. Spangenberg’s report points out that smell is the oldest human sense and the only one that shoots straight to the sensitive hippocampus, rather than being bounced across the hemisphere of the brain first — making it, perhaps, the most primal.
So, in the case of Spangenberg’s tests, it might be possible that the more quickly your brain can make sense of a smell, the more you like it, the more you like the store it’s in, and perhaps the more brain power you can devote to other tasks (like solving anagrams).
Still, he’s hesitant to make any serious neurological claims without more testing.
“There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that it does, for whatever reason, use up some degree of our processing capacity to have complex scents,” he says, “[But] without conducting an [expensive] FMRI, we’re not going to see what the brain’s doing.”
In the meantime, he says, even companies that aren’t considering the latest in environmental psychological research when they douse their stores in musk or roses or mulled wine are probably still doing themselves a favor.
“Retailers are creating an environment that rewards consumers for not shopping online,” he points out. “You feel good about being there, and you want to go back there.”
That’s got to be worth something this season.