How repulsive we find the smell of someone else’s body all depends on their social relationship to us – the closer, the less awful – according to new research that tested students’ reactions to the stench of sweaty shirts bearing the logos of different universities.
People can tolerate the poor body odour of their teammates better than those they consider unknown to them, allowing them to overcome their disdain and execute collective tasks, according to scientists at the universities of St Andrews and Sussex.
The findings reveal the social side of a physical sensation, said Anne Templeton, who worked on one of the studies at the University of Sussex.
“These findings suggest that disgust isn’t just a matter of sensory information – what we see and touch and smell – but of our social relationship to the source,” she said.
“This helps explain, for instance, why we experience less disgust when our own children are sick on us or when we change their nappies.”
The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and led by Stephen Reicher of the University of St Andrews’ School of Psychology and Neuroscience, asked students to touch and sniff a sweaty T-shirt.
In one experiment, the shirt carried the logo of the students’ own university; in the other experiment, a different university logo was displayed.
Students rated the shirt belonging to a different university as more disgusting than the one belonging to theirs.
Professor Reicher said there was a “serious message” in the discovery that a perception of team-belonging allowed physical repulsion to be sidestepped.
“Disgust is an emotion which plays a fundamental role in keeping us distant from others and from things that might harm us, such as infection. But, by the same token, it can stop people coming together when that is necessary,” he said.
“After all, you won’t work effectively with others if you can’t stand being in the same room with them. You can’t pull together if you can’t bear to touch others.
“So the reduction of physical disgust is a basic mechanism which is necessary for groups to come together, to cohere successfully and to work together effectively.”